SMC — Santa Monica College student Avital Levi is ready to float in space — and find a better way to fuel nano-satellites.
The 20-year-old honors student, who is heading to USC this fall as an electrical engineering major, left Wednesday for a special 10-day NASA program for college students in which she will get training in weightlessness and will also conduct research in the microgravity environment.
Levi is part of a four-member team of community college students who will join other students from universities throughout the United States attending the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. (Hers is the only team made up of community college students; all the rest are from four-year universities.)
Her team’s project is to investigate the effect of microgravity on the wetting of proton-exchange membranes so as to develop a more effective method of fueling nano-satellites.
In the flight training, she will board an airplane that follows a parabolic flight path, which will subject her to alternate weightlessness followed by hypergravity — 1.8 times the force of normal gravity.
“I’m excited,” she said before leaving. “I’m interested to see if I can withstand those conditions.”
This is the second time Levi is participating in a NASA program. Last fall, through the National Community College Aerospace Scholars, she spent three days at the Johnson Space Center with students from around the nation who worked in teams to build a prototype Mars rover.
“At first I thought, ‘How can someone like me, who has no experience, design a Mars rover?’” she said. “But I learned a lot doing it, a lot about the history of NASA and how science fits in with the rest of the world. Seeing the effect of NASA on technology was really interesting.”
This time around, her team submitted a detailed and technical research proposal, and each student will take on special roles. Levi said the team will be building its own hardware for the research.
The daughter of immigrants who came to the U.S. from Iran via Israel, Levi was born in America and raised in Beverly Hills. A graduate of Beverly Hills High School, she started at SMC in the fall of 2008, taking classes through the SMC Scholars Program, a rigorous program designed for honor students.
It was through the Scholars Program that she heard about the NASA programs.
“I am so grateful to the Scholars Program,” she said. “Before I was in it, I knew what I wanted and how to get there, but they really tell you what to do and how to fix mistakes.”
Levi, who plans to get a doctorate in electrical engineering and is considering working some day for NASA, has not only maintained an A-minus average at SMC, she has been active in extracurricular activities through the Hillel Club and Chabad. In addition, she is an accomplished musician who has played numerous instruments.
Levi says she has been happy with her time at SMC. “The teachers care,” she said. “And they know what they’re talking about. Also, I know I can always go and talk to them.”