Meet Dwight Theriot, UH Cullen College 2018-2019 Outstanding Senior
2018-2019 Cullen College Outstanding Senior
Graduation Year: 2018
Major: Mechanical Engineering
Dwight Theriot, a decorated U.S. Army veteran, discovered his passion for engineering by accident while serving as an intelligence and security officer in Iraq in 2009.
His unit needed a classified communication system – involving a communications satellite receiver and network automation – but couldn’t afford to buy a new one. After checking around the army supply chain, they found one that hadn’t been used for a while. It came with no guarantees that it worked, but it was free. Theriot and his unit picked up the equipment and got to work setting it up. After installing its many different pieces, they plugged it in and flipped the switch – only to have the power blow.
“We needed this system up and running quickly, and it was expensive equipment,” Theriot said. “We could send it for repairs and wait several months for it to be sent back to us. Or we could just pry it open and try to fix it.”
His team opted for the latter option and discovered the main power capacitators had exploded. The replacement parts were relatively inexpensive, so they decided to work with the guidance of a contractor, who happened to be an engineer.
Fixing the communications system turned out to be a great learning experience.
“I didn’t know anything about all this. It was the first time I had ever cracked open a piece of electronic equipment to try and fix it, the first time I’d soldered anything outside of a classroom,” Theriot said. “The entire process – from setting the equipment up to trouble shooting – got me interested in radio and satellite communications. This project sparked my imagination and started me on the path to becoming a mechanical engineer.”
He peppered the engineer with questions about his professional background and took online courses to learn more about engineering and communications technology. This exposure deepened Theriot’s commitment to pursue an engineering career after his military obligations ended.
“I told myself at that time, if I was fortunate enough to get into an engineering program that I would give my studies everything I had so I could someday work at NASA,” he said.
His next posting was at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio as the executive officer of the Warrior Transition Battalion. Theriot was responsible for the health, welfare and morale of 200 wounded soldiers transitioning from the battlefield to everyday life. In this role, he managed a staff of 60, identified gaps of healthcare coverage and served as liaison between the hospital, the Veteran’s Administration and non-profit organizations.
Then he was deployed again, this time to Afghanistan. He spent his free time experimenting with microcontrollers and researching engineering programs. During this time, he also became fascinated with space. While during the day Afghanistan was rough and dusty, on clear nights – with very little light pollution – it presented an astounding view of the stars.
“You see tons and tons of stars on clear nights,” Theriot said. “I found myself looking up a lot.”
He cultivated a new hobby: spotting the International Space Station (ISS) as it flew over Bagram Airbase, where he was stationed. He took more online courses, researched and contacted engineering schools from overseas.
“I started getting more and more fascinated with outer space and thinking about our place in the universe,” Theriot said. “Ultimately I realized I have to back to school for engineering. I did well for myself in the military, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do forever.”
By the time he left Afghanistan and the military, Theriot had seen two wars and been awarded a Bronze Star in recognition of his efforts over the course of his deployment, three Army Commendation medals and three Army Achievement medals.
Following a new path
Theriot, who had previously earned a bachelor’s degree at the United States Military Academy at West Point focused on Russian and Computer Science, would have to earn another bachelor’s degree to pursue engineering.
He returned to Texas ready to begin school with the help of the GI Bill and the Hazelwood Act – a Texas benefit that provides qualified veterans, spouses and dependent children up to 150 hours of tuition exemption.
Theriot applied to the Cullen College of Engineering program and was denied admission.
“I was like, okay I should just go get a job,” he said. “Honestly, there were more than a handful of times – this was one, and then there were other times I was stressed out about exams or homework – where I said to myself, ‘With my experience and my resume, I could go out and get a very good paying job today and I don’t have to go through any of this.’”
But his wife, Simone, who knew how much the dream mattered to him, didn’t let him give up.
Instead, he checked out other UH programs and then applied to the Department of Physics. Once he’d established a good academic record, Theriot transferred to the mechanical engineering program.
“I wanted to pursue a mechanical engineering degree because of how versatile it is and how many things fall under the roof of mechanical,” he said.
In addition to his studies, Theriot also worked in Haleh Ardebili's research group on thermal modeling of batteries. Ardebili, Bill D. Cook associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Cullen College, is well-known for her research on creating flexible, stretchable and bendable batteries and electronics with the potential for space and other industry application. His honors thesis, with Ardebili as advisor, was title "Review of Thermal-Electrochemical Modeling of Li-ion Batteries."
While a student at UH, Theriot pursued his space interests by seeking out opportunities offered by Houston – aka Space City – which is home to the world-renowned NASA Johnson Space Center.
He volunteered with The Mission Continues, NASA on Campus, Pi Tau Sigma (Mechanical Engineering Honor Society), SystemsGo! Rocketry (a high school program) and FIRST Robotics Competition.
He also participated in the NASA Pathways Intern Program (formerly known as the Co-Op program) between 2016 and 2018. The program follows the co-op education model where students gain work experience in engineering, science or business fields while spending alternate semesters at work and school.
“First they put you where they need you and then you have a choice as to which part of NASA you want to experience…basically, you rotate through different groups,” Theriot said.
In spring 2016, he worked with the Advanced Thermal Development Group where he helped design a liquid nitrogen-cooled thermal vacuum chamber, enabling the group to economically test new technologies in space-like conditions. He also taught an introductory Russian language and culture class to NASA employees and was selected as one of two “Outstanding Co-ops” for the term out of 50 interns.
In spring 2017, Theriot worked with the Extravehicular Activity (EVA) Operations and became certified to teach two astronaut training classes. He participated in mission simulations as an astronaut performing an EVA (activity outside the space station) and as a flight controller (who talked the astronauts through the EVA steps). A lot of engineering know-how is needed for the position.
“It has a lot to do with understanding the nature of things and figuring out the optimal working conditions for an activity or event,” he said. “You have to understand how equipment might behave under certain conditions and you have to be able to troubleshoot if things go wrong.”
That summer, he worked at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, where astronauts train for space missions. There he designed and implemented the software and sensors needed to integrate new equipment for the training facility.
His last rotation – in summer 2018 – was spent working in the Design and Analysis Branch where he designed and executed a thermal vacuum experiment to evaluate infrared heating solutions for Chamber A, one of the largest thermal vacuum chambers in the world. He also designed and built a thermal fluid loop test stand for emerging heat rejection technologies for the ISS.
At the end of his internship, Theriot was offered full-time employment and he ended up choosing to be a NASA flight controller. The position involves being an expert on extravehiclular activity in space and teaching astronauts to do spacewalks and maintenance activities outside the ISS.
He graduated December 2018 and started the job in 2019.
“I get to be part of the same group of people that taught Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin how to walk on the moon. Only a handful of people have ever done this job in history,” Theriot said. “I could be teaching the next astronaut to land on the moon how to do the moon walk.”
The Cullen College also named an Outstanding Junior:
2018-2019 Cullen College Outstanding Junior
Graduation Year: 2020
Major: Mechanical Engineering
Laura Malcotti-Sanchez credits her parents for her drive to excel.
“My parents are my biggest examples for never giving up,” she said. The family emigrated from Venezuela in 2005, after a volatile period of political turmoil that left her father unemployed. “I saw how my parents just kept working hard and looking for the best in all situations. They inspire me.”
As a high school student, Malcotti-Sanchez earned a Gold Award from the Girl Scouts of America in 2016 for her project addressing needs at the Casa Juan Diego Immigrant Shelter. She worked with more than 20 volunteers to renovate four residents’ rooms and paint a children’s mural. She also coordinated three workshops that taught volunteers how to sew curtains, handle repairs and paint.
That same year, she won a Tier One Scholarship to the University of Houston. She chose mechanical engineering because it combined her love of physics, calculus and troubleshooting. “I love mechanical engineering and I can’t see myself doing anything else,” she said.
She shares her love of engineering by seeking out opportunities to mentor other students. The summer after her freshman year, Malcotti-Sanchez served as a counselor at G.R.A.D.E. (Girls Reaching and Demonstrating Excellence) Camp, a one-week program that introduces girls – ages 13 to 17 – to the wonders of engineering, science and technology at the Cullen College.
The following fall semester, she worked as an undergraduate teaching assistant for the “Introduction to Engineering” course and the following semester she became an Honors teaching assistant for the “Computing for Engineers” course.
“My favorite part of being a TA is answering questions and giving students tips and hints that took me hours to figure out when I was in their shoes,” she said. “It’s gratifying to see students overcome their challenges and become better thinkers.”
“Even though engineering is difficult at times, I always try to show my students that it is fun and, most importantly, worth it,” she added.
Malcotti-Sanchez’s exposure to teaching inspired her to join the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Pros Mentorship program, where she mentored a foreign exchange graduate student. She now serves as a mentor for SWE and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, working with three underclassmen on resumes and applying for internships.
In addition, she has bolstered her academic learning with real-world experience in engineering. In 2018, Malcotti-Sanchez served as a mechanical engineering intern at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE). There she won second place in the “Best in Class Contest” for presenting project findings – involving evaluation of thermal potting materials – to a panel of HPE employees and earned the People’s Choice Award during the Intern Fair.
This summer she’ll explore the oil and gas industry as a drilling and completions engineering intern for BHP Billiton. She is looking forward to conducting well design and construction.
Meanwhile, she’s landed a research position with Haleh Ardebili, Bill D. Cook associate professor of mechanical engineering, who is well-known for her research on creating flexible, stretchable and bendable batteries and electronics.
“I’m still exploring what I really want to do,” Malcotti-Sanchez said. “I want to see if I like research so it’ll help me determine whether I want to go pursue a Ph.D. or go into industry.”
See below for the full list of 2018-2019 outstanding students from the different departments of the Cullen College of Engineering:
• Department Outstanding Senior Outstanding Junior
• Biomedical Engineering Christopher Smith Richard Adams
• Chemical Engineering Michael Richmond Amin Henini
• Civil Engineering Sven Sorhus Jennifer Penneck
• Computer Engineering Maria Medina Travis Bartholome
• Electrical Engineering Audrey Wang Bach Nguyen
• Industrial Engineering Britney Shum Shalini Lakshmi
• Mechanical Engineering Dwight Theriot Laura Malcotti-Sanchez
• Petroleum Engineering Nicholas Dunbar Tram Nhu Ngoc Vu