After graduating from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2020 with bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and mathematics, the guiding light in Ashwyn Sam’s career path was academia.
Three years later and now pursuing his doctorate at Stanford University in California—where he was one of 83 students nationwide to receive the school’s prestigious Knight-Hennessy Scholarship—he’s tapping the brakes. Academia is still a maybe but now a down-the-list maybe.
“Other ideas gain momentum, for instance, working at a startup or going into industry or potentially starting a company with a friend or something like that,” he said.
Changes aren’t unusual in Sam’s life. Moving from India to America at 13 years old, he graduated from Ooltewah High School in 2015, already accepted for enrollment by universities such as the Georgia Institute of Technology. But a change of plans—not of his own making—scuttled that idea.
In the U.S. on a visa as an international student, Sam saw the five-figure annual tuition at his list of schools and immediately knew he and his parents couldn’t afford it. As an international student, he couldn’t get financial aid, either.
He was ready to stop looking, but his parents didn’t. Just before fall semester began in 2015, they learned about the Global Scholars Program at Chattanooga State Community College. Quickly accepted, he graduated in 2017 with an associate’s degree in mechanical engineering and immediately enrolled in UTC.
Two months before graduating from UTC, he received a phone call telling him that he’d beaten 6,000 other applicants for the Knight-Hennessy Scholarship, a total prize worth about $300,000.
“I was shocked. I didn’t know what to say. It was probably the most awkward phone conversation ever. I couldn’t speak coherently. I had to tell myself to breathe, so there were a lot of long, awkward pauses,” he said at the time.
Pauses aren’t in the cards now. Sam is spending five years—maybe six, he said—to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D. He already received his master’s and has started on his Ph.D. Both degrees are in aero- and astronautics.
The double major makes sense for Sam. Machines that fly toward space seem to be in his blood.
At UTC, he was a member of the 2018 Rocket Mocs team that launched a rocket reaching 11,563 feet, a world record for college teams and a height that drew a room-wide gasp when announced at the awards ceremony for the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space Rocketry Contest.
While acknowledging that he was more focused on academics than relationships at UTC, Sam said he learned a valuable lesson without knowing he was learning it.
“I couldn’t do UTC alone; I needed others, but I somehow failed to fully grasp that during my time there. I was so focused on my academics that everything else took a backseat,” he said. “I went to Stanford with a more mature mindset of valuing people over academics, and it’s been great so far.”
Sigrid Elschot, Sam’s doctoral dissertation advisor and associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford, said she is “grateful to have him in my laboratory.”
“He has a great work ethic, is willing to tackle new complex challenges and understands both the fundamental physics but also the engineering procedures,” Elschot said. “He’s incredibly gracious and kind and is just a fantastic student.”
As a graduate student in engineering, Sam’s tuition and expenses add up to about $146,000 each academic year. The Knight-Hennessy scholarship pays full tuition for three years and on-campus housing and academic expenses such as books, meal plans and fees.
While the scholarship ends after the 2022-23 academic year, Stanford’s policy is to find other scholarships, grants or on-campus jobs to cover a graduate student’s costs, Sam said.
“In the worst-case scenario, I don’t get any of these grants,” he said. “In that scenario, I will work as a teaching assistant for courses and things like that. So I will do some sort of work at Stanford in order to have it covered.”
Stanford is a research-oriented university, and Sam’s evolving career goals are shaped by his own research work at the school—finding a way to harvest energy in space.
“Right now, it’s pretty difficult for spacecraft to be powered. There are very limited power sources,” he explained. “It can get energy from the sun, but when it gets really far away from the sun, you don’t have much access to that. So I’m trying to come up with novel techniques to power a spacecraft.”
There were moments of fear when he was getting ready to leave Chattanooga and fly cross-country to Stanford, but Sam said he is guided by a philosophy that’s determined—and maybe a bit geeky: “I kept thinking back to this quote from one of my favorite books, ‘The Lord of the Rings,’” he said.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”