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Coming home to MIT

Alum of MIT middle and high school programs returns to begin doctorate program in aerospace engineering
Zi Peng "Hunter" Zhao
Zi Peng "Hunter" Zhao
Photo: Nick Holden

When Zi Peng “Hunter” Zhao was five years old, he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: an aerospace engineer. “You see a rocket launch, and that to me was the coolest thing ever. You’re sending people to space, and it’s… discovery — exploration — it’s just really awesome to me,” he says. While the precise details of his dream have evolved over the years, his connection to MIT — beginning as a middle school student and extending through today as a first-year PhD candidate in aerospace engineering – has remained constant.

Growing with SEED and STEM

While the doctorate program and research in MIT’s Systems Engineering Advancement Research Initiative (SEAri) marks a new chapter for Hunter, returning to MIT is, in a way, a homecoming. Hunter arrived at the Institute around a decade ago as a rising seventh-grader who had only a few years before immigrated to Boston from Singapore after spending his early years in China.

In 2004, Hunter, then a seventh grader at Edwards Middle School in Boston, enrolled in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Program in its inaugural year. In the program — provided by the MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (OEOP) to students who attend public middle school in Boston, Cambridge and Lawrence, Mass. — Hunter and his peers spent five weeks during the summer learning math and science from MIT students and select Saturdays during the school year working one-on-one with student mentors. Hunter also participated in the Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery (SEED) Academy, an OEOP program that provides hands-on curriculum to strengthen local high school students’ foundational skills in math and science over seven semesters. 

The then-coordinator of SEED Academy, Nicole Stark Lane, remembers Hunter as a “soft-spoken young man with impressive abilities and a family that strongly valued academic achievement.” Stark wrote in an email: “Throughout his career in SEED Academy, Hunter’s notable dedication to his work endeared him to our staff and earned him the high regard of his peers.”

For Hunter, these programs solidified his passion for engineering and provided an opportunity to engage in his interests through hands-on activities, such as building a remote-controlled car for a SEED Academy project.

He credits the two OEOP programs with providing him an extra push to pursue his dreams. “The stuff I learned… prepared me for a lot of the classes I was going to take. The lectures were always quite enjoyable and [there were] always fun activities,” says Hunter. “These things helped me further along in achieving my goals.”

In 2010, Hunter returned to OEOP to serve as a teaching assistant for Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES).

Making connections at Caltech

After high school, Hunter went on to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he studied mechanical engineering with a minor in aerospace engineering. Like many students, Hunter had a broad sense of what he wanted to pursue, but he was unsure of how his interests would specifically coalesce under the umbrella of aerospace engineering.

In his academics, Hunter’s course load reflected his diverse set of interests. “I came into college knowing a lot about computer programming. I also liked the design aspects of mechanical engineering. I took quite a number of materials classes. I also took controls, mechatronics,” he says. “It [was] — I wouldn’t say ‘all over the place,’ because it infers a negative connotation, but it’s rather, I think, very versatile.”

Outside of class, Hunter pursued his passion for aerospace through a variety of projects. Under Professor Sergio Pellegrino of Caltech’s Engineering and Applied Science Division, Hunter conducted research on CubeSats — miniature satellites used for space research — and reaction wheels — mechanisms that handle spacecraft altitude control. He also worked part-time at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a NASA research and development facility managed by Caltech.

At the JPL, Hunter worked in the Systems Engineering Department, and it was there that he recognized the match between systems engineering and the skills he developed through his experiences in and out of the classroom.

Systems engineering is a field that explores ways to design and manage complex engineering projects that involve a variety of fields. As Hunter explains, “[There are] all these different aspects of engineering. They’re very specific; all of them are very independent in a way. But your systems engineer makes sure all of these come together.” Hunter recognized that the versatility he pursued in his coursework could be an asset for a systems engineer and that a systems approach was the one he wanted to take within aerospace.

From engineering to policy

Beyond systems engineering, Hunter encountered other kinds of connections – particularly those between science and policy. “I used to be this purely technical guy,” Hunter says. “I wanted to do really cool things. I wanted to be like [founder of SpaceX] Elon Musk.” However, work in an environment where engineers often expressed worries about dependence on funding altered his perspective. “More and more, I began to realize that if you stay purely in the technical field, while you can achieve a lot of things, the impact you make is still limited,” Hunter says.

Hunter believes deepening that impact is a critical concern for aerospace development today. “Most people out there, they think we invest like 20 percent of our national budget in NASA. But in fact it’s only 0.5 percent. And yet for every dollar we put into NASA, seven to 14 dollars come out to the economy eventually. But it takes time, and time is something our system doesn’t seem to allow,” Hunter says. “So I think that’s something I could go into and address.” He hopes that as a systems engineer, he can eventually shift his focus into the policy and business aspects of the aerospace industry.

Looking forward and looking back

Anticipating life after graduate school, Hunter plans to first build further experience in the aerospace industry, either in government-funded agencies or in the private sector. Eventually, he plans to move into policy.

And when Hunter looks back at his own trajectory, he sees not only a student following his passion for aerospace one step at a time, but also the growth of a young person made possible by many others. Reflecting on his eighth-grade self, eagerly learning engineering in SEED Academy, Hunter says, “I was really arrogant. I thought I was everything.” Now he says, “A lot of the things in my life really didn’t happen by my effort … I’d say my life is the result of the inspiration of many, many other people.”

As Hunter puts it, the path to great achievements lies in “an art of responding.” “You can either look at something as an opportunity or something as work,” he says.

For Stark, Hunter is living proof that effective academic enrichment programs can empower students to succeed in technical fields and in life. “I often say that an investment in young people offers the best ROI possible; it’s infinite,” Stark says. “The fact that Hunter was accepted to and has elected to attend the doctoral program at MIT this year validates everything I believe about children's ability to meet expectations… We knew our students were capable, told them so, challenged them whenever possible, and watched them achieve. Now grown, Hunter is a remarkable man and scholar.”

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