Commencement 2017: A Passion for Research

Troy, N.Y. — Eva Mungai has a long-term goal. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Mungai moved to the United States in 2005 with her family, who settled in Palo Alto, California. A desire to focus on undergraduate research led Mungai to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Mungai will receive a degree in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer during the 211th Commencement Ceremony May 20. Following graduation, she will head to the University of Michigan, where she plans to pursue her master’s and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering controls and robotics. According to Mungai, the experience at Rensselaer has put her on the path for her next journey that includes building an Iron Man suit. Iron Man is a fictional superhero who wears a powered suit of armor. 

“Building the Iron Man suit is something that I have always wanted to do because to me, it’s a great feat of engineering,” said Mungai. “My most memorable experience at Rensselaer has been taking a challenging course such as Strengths of Materials, and working together with my fellow peers, regardless of whether I knew them at the beginning of class, to excel in the class. This is my most memorable experience because it made me realize that the RPI culture is one of collaborative learning.”

“When I decided to become an engineer, I knew that I would finally be able to work on fulfilling my dream to build an Iron Man suit,” Mungai said. “I took a variety of classes that were not required for my major in areas including computer science, nanotechnology, and aerodynamics. While I gained the general knowledge that I needed on how to build the suit, the one aspect that I didn’t get to fully explore is related to controls. My graduate study work will allow me to do that.”

To pursue her graduate study program at the University of Michigan, Mungai received funding from the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), which helps ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States and reinforces its diversity. The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions, according to the organization.

With graduation just around the corner, Strategic Communications and External Relations had a chance to interview Mungai about her experiences at Rensselaer.

Describe some of the undergraduate research projects that your were involved in?

As an undergraduate researcher, I have been able to participate in several projects related to the aerospace industry, including control of laminar separation bubble, mitigation of Tollmein-Schlichting waves, and characterization of stall cells. Laminar separation bubbles are a flow separation phenomenon caused by a strong adverse pressure gradient. Tollmein-Schlichting waves are a 2-D instability phenomenon that occur in the boundary layer during the transition from laminar to turbulent flow. Stall cells are a specific type of highly 3-D flow separation that can lead to expensive crashes of drones. The study of stall cells is important as stall cells can cause flutter, affect lift, and maneuverability; thereby, resulting in an expensive crash of drones. For instance, stall cells may have contributed to the Helios Prototype crash. This could especially be dangerous if the drones are operating in a heavily populated area. Drones are susceptible to stall cells as they operate within the Reynolds number where stall cells typically form.

For the research projects I participated in, I took the responsibility of designing, building, and assembling the experimental setup, as well as data acquisition and analysis. My current research project involves designing and building a window assembly and a complete experimental model of the NACA 0015 airfoil for the lab’s water tunnel in order to study and characterize stall cells. Since numerical studies of stall cells are limited to low Reynolds numbers, which are impractical to achieve in a wind tunnel, the experiment enables the comparison of experimental data and numerical data as a result of having water in the tunnel.

What are some of the benefits that you enjoyed as an undergraduate student?

Some of the benefits I enjoyed are access to 3-D printers, the machine shop, engineering software such as NX, and the plethora of interdisciplinary courses I was able to take. I have also had the opportunity to serve in several leadership roles within student organizations and my academic department. For instance, I currently serve as the chair of the Department of Mechanical, Aeronautical, and Nuclear Engineering Student Advisory Council (MANE SAC), which serves as a liaison between the students and the faculty. Within the department, I am involved in faculty hiring, curriculum changes, and graduate seminars involving speakers from other institutions as well as current graduate student research. One of the projects I have participated in as part of MANE SAC was the establishment and publication of The MANE Undergraduate Research and Design Journal. The Journal is a means to promote undergraduate participation in research and product innovation; the first issue was published last spring.

Are there any particular challenges or obstacles that you had to overcome while at Rensselaer?

One of the challenges I faced was balancing school work. I have a tendency to take on about 20 credits, along with participating in undergraduate research and club activities, while still maintaining a good GPA. To overcome this challenge, I started attending office hours and delegating club activities to other members. Making a to-do list was very helpful!

Did you participate in a sport or are you involved in any Rensselaer student organizations? 

I have been involved in several student organizations including: the African Caribbean Student Association, National Society of Black Engineers, Pi Tau Sigma, and the MANE Student Advisory Council. I participated in these Rensselaer student organizations because they helped me improve professionally and also provided me with leadership opportunities and guidelines. Additionally, they gave me a community of friends I could rely on and the opportunity to give back to the community at RPI and beyond.

While at Rensselaer, what are the old or new hobbies and interests that you pursued?

Beyond academics, balance is important. I also participated in wrestling, break-dancing, and boxing.

Based on your experience, what advice can you offer to the incoming class of students?

Do not be afraid to reach out to attend office hours or reach out to professors. Professors may seem intimidating, but they are more than happy to help. Participate in undergraduate research or clubs such as Rensselaer Motorsport (formerly SAE), as they will give the experience recruiters are looking for. Prior to submitting a job application, cover letter, or resume, have someone at the Center for Career and Professional Development (CCPD), a professor, or graduate student go over it.

Watch a video of Eva Mungai:

Mungai’s experience is an example of The New Polytechnic, an emerging paradigm for teaching, learning, and research at Rensselaer. The foundation for this vision is the recognition that global challenges and opportunities are so great they cannot be adequately addressed by even the most talented person working alone. Rensselaer serves as a crossroads for collaboration—working with partners across disciplines, sectors, and geographic regions—to address complex global challenges, using the most advanced tools and technologies, many of which are developed at Rensselaer. Research at Rensselaer addresses some of the world’s most pressing technological challenges—from energy security and sustainable development to biotechnology and human health. The New Polytechnic is transformative in the global impact of research, in its innovative pedagogy, and in the lives of students at Rensselaer.

About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, is America’s first technological research university. For nearly 200 years, Rensselaer has been defining the scientific and technological advances of our world. Rensselaer faculty and alumni represent 85 members of the National Academy of Engineering, 17 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 25 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 8 members of the National Academy of Medicine, 8 members of the National Academy of Inventors, and 5 members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, as well as a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With over 7,000 students and nearly 100,000 living alumni, Rensselaer is addressing the global challenges facing the 21st century—to change lives, to advance society, and to change the world. To learn more, go to