Aerospace Student Models Interstellar Citizenship

By: Diana Riggs
Date: April 30, 2018

Liberty Shockley, Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence recipient, wants to lead the engineers of tomorrow.

Award winner Liberty Shockley stands in front of a CEAS sign

Shockley, 2018 PLME recipient

Shockley, a senior aerospace engineering student, received a 2018 Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence, a prestigious honor awarded by the University of Cincinnati (UC) president to exceptional graduating students who “best exemplify scholarship, leadership, character, service and the ideals of the University of Cincinnati.” Shockley’s list of accomplishments speaks for itself—she participated in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), Honors program, co-oped at NASA twice, studied in Nepal and India, learned two languages—and did it all in four years.

“I never could have done it without the support of so many different departments being willing to work together. I never doubted I would be successful, even as I branched off from the standard curriculum. I love UC because I don’t think any other school anywhere in the world could have balanced all the things that I have done.”

Shockley decided to be an aerospace engineer because of her early exposure to engineering and research, first through her father, an electrical engineer in the Air Force, and later from Colonel Amy McCain, one of her father’s superiors who became a mentor for Shockley.

Inspired by the stunning innovations in science and technology that resulted from their leadership, she committed her future to engineering while in her teens. “Most people think ‘fighter pilot’ when they hear ‘Air Force’. I never really wanted to do that. The skill set I have developed is better for interpersonal relationships and leading teams of engineers to build the next best thing.”

Shockley was enticed by UC’s history in the aerospace field, especially by UC's connection to Neil Armstrong, who taught at UC in the ‘70s. She wanted to be a part of that history.

Shockley and two other students stand in front of a NASA sign

Shockley and two other students at NASA

As a freshman, she visited one of her aerospace professors, Kelly Cohen, PhD, to ask about his unmanned air vehicle research. During their conversation, Cohen asked for her resume. That summer, Shockley started working in a campus lab with Cohen and a team of researchers on the Surveillance for Intelligent Emergency Response Robotic Aircraft (SIERRA) project through a National Science Foundation program, Research Experiences for Undergraduates. She composed path-planning algorithms for drones performing search and rescue missions. During her year and a half on SIERRA project, she presented at a conference and published her first paper.

She credits early exposure to PhD-level research for pushing her skills to the next level. “I never would have got a co-op at NASA if I didn’t have that experience. NASA is not just looking for academic performance. They want you to be involved in your community, and have some research experience.” Shockley said.

By junior year, Shockley felt worn out from her academic and military commitments. She had successfully completed her first co-op at NASA and a grueling Air Force field training, but she wanted a change of pace. She and a fellow aerospace student decided to spend winter break on an honors experience abroad, through a Mary Rowe Moore experiential learning grant. They participated in a volunteer program in Pokhara, Nepal teaching English to boys at a Buddhist monastery. They embraced the monastery culture, stayed after the formal English lessons, practiced English with older monks, and joined them in puja (worship ceremony).


Shockley stands at the monastery with three other women and a little girl, all wearing Nepali clothing

Shockley and other volunteers with her hosts at the monastery

Their hosts taught Shockley some Nepali language and asked them about their studies. Shockley has fond memories of stargazing with a girl at the monastery, and recalls the wonder in the girl’s eyes as she explained satellites. “We rediscovered our passion for engineering as we explained aircraft and rockets to them,” Shockley said.

Shockley returned to NASA for her second co-op in Washington D.C., where she helped build a school bus-sized telescope called PIPER (Primordial Inflation Polarization Explorer), which later went into space on a scientific balloon. That summer, Shockley lived with a friend’s parents, who are from Western India; they taught her some Hindi.

Equipped with her new language skills, Shockley spent the summer of her junior year in Varanasi, India studying Hindi through Project Global Officer(GO), an ROTC program that offers summer programs for cadets to learn a language critical to US national security.

She expanded the experience to fulfill her honors experiential learning requirements back at UC last fall. She hosted workshops for her ROTC detachment to expose more UC students to Project GO. Four of the five cadets who applied to Project GO with Shockley’s guidance were accepted to programs this summer, including placements in Morocco, South Korea and Taiwan.

She swells with pride when she sees a fellow cadet push past their comfort zone and pursue their passions. “It felt good to give back in these ways. Sharing about your learning isn’t about you developing your public speaking skills; it is about you investing in the next generation.”

After her graduation this spring, Shockley will commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force and will attend the Air Force Institute of Technology to pursue her Master's degree in Astronautical Engineering. She has interest in developing the partnership between NASA and the growing Indian Space Research Organization.

If she has learned anything at UC, it is that she cannot anticipate where life will lead her next. She wants to follow her passion for space wherever it takes her. Thanks to UC, she is comfortable navigating uncharted territory.