Skip to main content


ME graduate Kaaya parlays doctorate into work at Boeing
Stephen Greenwell
Theophilus Kaaya earned three degrees - bachelor's, master's and doctorate - from UH. He now works at Boeing.
Theophilus Kaaya earned three degrees - bachelor's, master's and doctorate - from UH. He now works at Boeing.

For Theophilus Kaaya, a proud University of Houston alumnus, his connection to his family was an important consideration when it came to initially picking a college, especially since he would be acclimating to the United States from Uganda.

“I came as an international student, and my first two siblings came before me. They went to Texas Southern University,” he said. “I was interested in mechanical engineering or something else involving engineering. It had to be engineering, which TSU didn't have at that point.”

It was a combination of the programs offered and the proximity to his family that combined to make UH an attractive school for his undergraduate degree.

“UH had my major, mechanical engineering, and it was close to TSU, where my siblings had gone before,” he said. “Compared to other universities in the Houston area, it was also more affordable.”

Kaaya earned his doctorate from UH in 2023, and he is now a propulsion engineer at Boeing. Throughout his educational journey, Kaaya said he has relied on his family, community, and God for support.

“Family bond is important. We're raised to grow together as a family and to work things out together as family, so that has helped a lot in my journey,” he said. “They have been there in my down moments when I'm feeling low, and they've been there in my high moments. That has helped temper and handle any challenges that I've faced throughout my academic journey. It's important, and I treasure it very much.”

Once he was enrolled at UH, Kaaya said that the staff at Learning Support Services (LSS) — now known as LAUNCH — were vital to his success. He later worked as a tutor for LSS for majority of his undergraduate as well.

“Down there we had Dr. Laura Heidel, and Mr. Kenneth Williams, they were my supervisors,” he said. “They equipped us with all the resources we needed to be successful, not only as tutors, but also as students. They made the learning process and stay at school memorable and enjoyable. Every time I finished my work, I had to go down to the tutoring center and help students. I love teaching and tutoring, and that helped me build my social, negotiation and teaching skills.”

As part of his studies, Kaaya had to take history courses, which he noted with a laugh that he initially wasn’t looking forward to. But now, he recognizes their importance.

“I didn’t like history that much at first. The fact that I had come to college, and they told me I had to do history, again, I was thinking of going back,” he said, laughing. “My sister told me to think of the big picture. What do you actually want? And that helped me put things in perspective. History was just two semesters, and that would be it, but eventually, when I attended the classes, I started enjoying history. And to this day, I can see how history does actually affect and informs engineering. We may not think of it that much, but it actually plays a vital role, even when you’re solving problems.”

In the Mechanical Engineering Department, Kaaya was thankful for crossing paths with Jagannatha “JR” Rao, in his role then as a professor. He is now the Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs and Distance Learning.

“He instilled the discipline and resilience required to go through the demanding courses,” Kaaya said. “He would be intimidating sometimes, but behind that intimidation he is doing it to remind us that we’re doing serious work. We must take it with that sense of urgency and seriousness. That helped me remain resilient and determined to go through the program.”

Kaaya identified several other professors and staff members that had positively affected his experience at UH.

“Dr. Ralph Metcalfe is now retired. He always provoked my curiosity and provided ideas and insights to think about as an engineer. We would explore and see how engineering learning can be used, both theoretically and outside school, but most importantly, its application not only in the U.S., but also in Uganda, which does have some great work to do in terms of research and bringing services closer to people.”

“Then I have Dr. Christiana Chang and Dr. Daniel Araya [now at John Hopkins in Maryland]. They were advisors for our capstone project, and they offered valuable critiques and advice for shaping our approach to engineering design and analysis at an early stage. These were some of my initial stages toward my journey to doing research, and they paved the way of critical thinking and independent thinking through research.”

Kaaya earned his mechanical engineering degree from Cullen, but elected to continue at the college, earning his master's degree and doctorate as well. The financial aid offered by the school and the strides in improving the research environment were key in his decision. The university achieved Tier One status in 2011, which was reconfirmed in 2016.

“They did offer some scholarships that I took opportunity of for my Bachelor's level, and they also offered me a scholarship for my master's degree. That allowed me to come back and do the first year of my master's before I switched to the Ph.D.,” he said. “The Ph.D. offered the Graduate Tuition Fund and departmental scholarships that helped cover most of the tuition, and it also allowed me to get a monthly stipend that covered my expenses for my day-to-day living.”

He added, “Apart from affordability, UH has made great strides to become a tier one institution. Shortly before I joined in 2012, it had been declared a Tier One university. This opened up opportunities in the hands of excellent professors to do interesting research.”

When he became a graduate student, Kaaya relied on a new set of people for support, as well as his established network.

“Dr. Pradeep Sharma took us through a critical look at our future paths as Ph.D. graduates, during our future faculty program. The sessions we had with him were informative on what path we would want to take as graduates, and how we can stay mainly in academia,go to industry or have a blend of the two. It is from these classes that I decided on the idea of exploring industry.”

“Dr. Karolos Grigoriadis is the main inspiration behind my focus in the field of dynamics and controls. I enjoyed his class. It was very demonstrative, and I understood that class more than I understood the other classes. It just clicked, how he taught it. I also thank Dr. Matthew Franchek, who is also in the Controls group. His expertise and training pushed me into the love of physics-based modeling, design, and analysis. From his classes, I was able to implement a physics-based approach to most of my problems, and this allowed me to blend it with data driven approaches.”

“Also in the Controls group, I thank Dr. Marzia Cescon and Dr. Gangbing Song, who equipped us with the various control strategies, both classical and modern. We have tool sets that we can always pull out and approach these problems, and every now and then, I get to go back to them and see how I can approach my problems in my line of work.”

“There is also Dr. Zheng Chen, my Ph.D. advisor. His insight, help, guidance, and support were the backbone for my Ph.D. work on the design and control of soft actuators for medical and robotic applications. The four and a half years spent with him were wonderful and memorable.”

“And beyond the professors, I wanted to thank the staff. This is Tammy Engelbosch, Ashley Moore, Jamar Murray, April Blount, Lauren Anderson, Joana Gramajo and Juan Guzman. And I cannot fail to mention the invisible heroes in the department, our beloved janitors and custodians who always ensured that we worked in clean and conducive environments to perform at our peak level.”

When asked if he had advice for current students, Kaaya stressed the importance of reaching out to others for support.

“There is no need to fear faculty and staff. They are there to help us succeed,” he said. “Make friends and make the memories count. This is one of the best times you will have in your academic journey. Be resilient, determined, and focused on your goals. It is easy to get distracted, but having accountability buddies and remembering the reason you are going to school will keep you on track. Use as many opportunities available as possible. You never know what might come of them.”

Share This Story: