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Two mechanical and aerospace engineering students, Aref Abdala and Perla Latorre Suarez, have been named recipients of the 2021 X-Force Fellowship. This prestigious program, sponsored by the National Security Innovation Network and the Department of Defense, gives students the chance to apply their technical and entrepreneurial expertise to real-world issues that can affect the military.

Early Career Opportunity

“I am thankful for this amazing opportunity to help with national security problems while gaining professional experience,” Abdala said. “I will have a chance to devise solutions to some of the military’s problems and can figure out if I want to pursue this career path when I graduate.”

As a freshman aerospace engineering major, Abdala wasn’t sure he’d be chosen for the fellowship, but he said he looks forward to learning from the experiences of other fellows who are further along in their education or who have graduated.

He says his time at UCF has already helped him prepare for this experience, and if it wasn’t for the support of the faculty, he wouldn’t have this opportunity.

“I was first introduced to this opportunity by one of my professors at UCF,” he said. “If it wasn’t for her and the faculty and staff that find these opportunities for students, I would never have been able to partake in this fellowship.”

X-Force Fellowship as a Mission

As the daughter of a Army veteran, Suarez, a mechanical engineering major, was interested in the opportunity to develop technology that could help our troops.

“My father served in the Army for 20 years, and knowing that there are many other lives to take care of has always been a concern for me since that included my father’s life,” Suarez said.

“The X-Force fellowship also provides the opportunity to work on a mission-focused real-world project by working directly with the military and professional growth.”

The fellowship will begin in July, and Suarez will work on her project in conjunction with one of the DoD’s military partners. Fellows can complete projects that are technical in nature, such as the development of software or a mechanical design; strategic, such as plans for communications or social media; or research-based, which can highlight new and emerging technology.

All of the fellows will receive a $2,500 monthly stipend as well as a small budget to complete their project. At the end of the fellowship, each student will deliver a prototype to their military sponsor.

This won’t be Suarez’ first technical project. She previously led a team of students from the Raghavan Research Group in the NASA MINDS collegiate learning experience, which allows student teams the chance to create a project based off of one of the technologies needed for the Artemis program. The UCF team developed a prototype and determined the necessary materials to print stress sensors in space.

Suarez joined the Raghavan Research Group, led by Professor Seetha Raghavan, in 2018.

“Perla has the drive to succeed at anything she undertakes,” says Professor Seetha Raghavan, Suarez’ research mentor. “She has outstanding leadership and project management skills, as well as the constant aspiration to learn and become the best she can be. This is an unbeatable  combination of traits that makes her the perfect candidate for the fellowship.”

Suarez credits her mentor as helping her achieve success, both with NASA MINDS, and now the X-Force Fellowship.

“Being part of Dr. Raghavan’s lab has taught me many skills that I would not have learned while only taking classes,” Suarez said. “I have learned how to work in teams, how to conduct experiments and how to be a good leader. Dr. Raghavan’s advice has made me be able to achieve more than I ever thought I would.”