HMNTL alumni Josh Sulkin now works at Space Exploration Technologies (better known as SpaceX). He says his time as a research assistant in Professor Kent Choquette’s lab was incredibly valuable in giving him experience in more general skills like planning a research program, dealing with uncertainty, dealing with failure, and reasoning from first principles. 

What year did you graduate?  
I completed my dissertation in Fall 2011 and officially graduated in Spring 2012.

Can you tell me about your research?  

For the majority of my time at SpaceX I was the Flight Software Architect for the Crew Dragon spacecraft. I designed and helped implement the software necessary to autonomously fly astronauts to the International Space Station and land them back safely on earth. 
My current project is leading the software team developing the inter-satellite lasercom link for SpaceX’s Starlink constellation program. 

What research did you participate in at Illinois?  

I worked on designing, simulating, fabricating, and testing various types of semiconductor laser devices (Vertical Cavity Surface Emitting lasers and Photonic Crystal lasers). 

How did your time at Illinois shape your work now?  

I received all three of my degrees (B.S., M.S., and Ph.D) at Illinois, and my time there gave me an incredible foundation of knowledge and experience that I draw on constantly in my career. 
When I started out in college, I really had no idea what I wanted my career to look like. All I knew is that I was fascinated with computers and electronics and wanted to learn more. 
My undergraduate degree was in Computer Engineering with a focus on computer architecture, although I took a wide range of courses in everything from systems to micro fabrication. From freshman year to senior year I went from thinking of computers as a black box to really having an understanding of them from transistors up to high level programming languages. 
Photo of Josh Sulkin and his daughter in front of a SpacecraftWhen looking toward graduate school, I became interested in diving more into physics, so I started research on photonics and learned more about electromagnetics, solid state physics, etc. I also got to get really hands on with semiconductor fabrication in the micro and nano technology laboratory’s clean room. 
As I got closer to graduation I realized that the aerospace industry was a place where my dual backgrounds of computing and physics could be put to good use. This was particularly true as SpaceX where virtually every engineering discipline you can imagine is needed to develop our advanced rockets and spacecraft. 
The technology changes at SpaceX and in industry in general are very fast paced, but the fundamentals of electrical and computer engineering are always relevant. Being able to draw on a deep reservoir of knowledge has helped me as I worked on a variety of technical problems. . 

What advice do you have for current students?  

I would encourage students to really enjoy their time at Illinois and make the most of it they can, both academically and personally. Being at an incredible research university like the University of Illinois is a rare privilege and also a unique time in your life that won’t come again. Try to learn as much as you can, get to know as many people as you can, and enjoy all the activities the school and town has to offer.