Student News Brief

Two SEAS students named Patti Grace Smith Fellows

Fellowship connects Black students with aerospace companies

Head shot of Denzel Ekes

Denzel Ekes

Denzel Ekes fell in love with space exploration at a young age. He inherited a love of airplanes from his father, and family trips to the Boston Museum of Science often included visiting the planetarium and replica lunar landing module. By the time Ekes got to Harvard, he already had a clear career goal.

“I always knew my career would be focused somewhere in space,” said Ekes, a third-year mechanical engineering concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “I just fell in love with space and the idea of being able to go to different places and explore places beyond our own sphere.”

Ekes and second-year mechanical engineering student Nathan Evans were both selected to the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship, which connects Black college students with summer internships at aerospace companies. Ekes will intern at Hermeus, a start-up designing hypersonic jet planes, while Evans will be at Ball Aerospace & Technologies, which develops spacecraft, instruments, and components.

“We’re at a tipping point where we could see that massive explosion of space exploration,” said Evans. “I want to be a part of it.”

The Patti Grace Smith Fellowship began in 2021 as a spin-off of the Brooke Owens Fellowship, which aims to increase the number of women working in the aerospace industry. Patti Grace Smith was the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s first leader of its Office for Commercial Space Travel, and during her 10 years in the role the department licensed the first U.S. commercial spaceport.

Smith also fought for Black civil rights throughout her life. She was one of the high school students that sued the Macon County Board of Education for the right to attend a previously all-white high school in Alabama, leading to desegregation in schools across the country.

Black employees and leaders are underrepresented in the field compared with their percentage of the national population and collegiate student body, and helping Black students get that first internship can be invaluable. Ekes and Evans are the first SEAS students to receive the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship. Sofia Martinez, a fourth-year student concentrating in applied mathematics, was named a Brooke Owens Fellow in 2021.

Head shot of Nathan Evans

Nathan Evans

“Diversity is good for any field, because the more people you have from different backgrounds, the more ideas that will be floating around,” Evans said. “The more life context that people have, the more likely it is that someone strikes upon a really good idea that changes the industry.”

For Ekes, the internship is also a chance to work on cutting-edge technology. Fellowship finalists choose their internship based on a list of interested companies, and he had the choice between Hermeus, a start-up, and established aerospace companies SpaceX and Virgin Orbit. He chose Hermeus because its smaller workforce could translate to a greater impact on a company planning to launch a hypersonic plane as early as next summer.

“That feels a little intimidating, but if it works out, I’ve really played a pivotal role in helping this company put its foot forward,” he said. “I wanted to work in a fast-paced environment where my work matters and I wouldn’t be behind a desk all the time. I really value being able to actually build something hands-on, and I’ll get to do that with Hermeus.”

The Fellowship required a four-round application process that began with video and essay applications. Evans and Ekes then went through several rounds of interviews with former Fellows and corporate leaders before being given a final list of potential internships. With their first step into the industry now assured, Evans and Ekes look forward to long careers in the field.

“There’s an infinite unexplored universe out there,” Evans said. “Fellowships like this help people get in the door. After that, it’s still on you to go out and develop the skills to change the world.”

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