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Engineering major contributes to NASA research projects

UNF student Colin Ott working in an engineering labColin Ott and his teammates prepared for the Great North American Eclipse that took place on Monday, April 8 for six months. 

As part of the University of North Florida team selected in May 2023 to participate in NASA's Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project (NEBP), they knew the day of the total solar eclipse would be the culmination of their hard work. Out of the 55 teams selected to participate in the NEBP, UNF is currently one of three Florida institutions selected for the engineering track. 

Following two successful balloon launches during last October’s annular eclipse, the team spent countless hours designing a brand new, fully automated vent system for their balloon’s payload — a device attached to the balloon equipped with atmospheric sensors and other scientific instruments to collect data for NASA regarding atmospheric temperatures, humidity and more. Additionally, Ott and his teammates tirelessly researched new materials and hardware to improve payload efficiency. In mid-March, the team executed a successful mock launch on campus with Action News Jax in attendance conducting interviews with Ott and other members of UNF’s NEBP team. 

 Total eclipse on April 8, 2024The NEBP team arrived in Malvern, Arkansas on Saturday, April 6, in preparation for their eclipse balloon launch on April 8. On that day, the team successfully launched and recovered two balloons — one named “Osprey2” and the other named “Innovation.” Both balloons reached an altitude of 91,000 feet. Currently, the team is filtering through the data collected during the total eclipse. 

For Ott, a senior graduating from UNF in May with a degree in electrical engineering, it's been an amazing experience, especially working on the eclipse project with Dr. Nirmal Patel, a UNF physics faculty who’s led the student team working on the NASA project.  

“The experience with Dr. Patel has been fantastic. He is very understanding and passionate about these projects and he is willing to help us in any way he can” Ott said. 

Becoming an Engineer
Hailing from Doylestown, Penns., Ott moved to the First Coast with his family during his junior year of high school — attending Creekside High School in St. Johns, Florida. Although he says the warm weather was nice, he experienced some challenges socially, but soon found his footing through athletics. 

“It was definitely tough for me because at that point in everyone’s school life, people have their friend groups and I was more introverted,” Ott said. “To get involved, I started playing sports and I started socializing; from there, my friend group got larger so I was able to enjoy my senior year.” That experience led Ott to open up and become more extroverted, he says. 

After graduating from high school in 2019, he enrolled at Flagler College — following in the footsteps of his two older brothers. There he studied business but realized it was not a path he wanted to continue pursuing. While weighing his options, he decided to give engineering a shot as he had been involved in the engineering program at Creekside. He also consulted with his brother who was involved in the electrical engineering field. While searching for suitable programs, he found out about UNF’s School of Engineering and enrolled in the spring of 2021. 

While completing his studies, Ott learned about the NEBP from his tutor, who happened to be involved in the project. Shortly after, Ott met with Dr. Patel and joined the project in the spring 2023 semester. 

UNF Colin Ott with research team holding NASA balloonNASA projects
The purpose of the NEBP is to help NASA better understand gravity wave patterns. Ott said eclipses present the optimal conditions to study those patterns — leading to launching scientific balloons into the stratosphere. Through this project, UNF students gain real-world STEM experience in data acquisition and analysis. For his role in the project, Ott focuses on working with the software and integration of various sensors within the balloon’s payload box that collects and sends data to NASA during each launch.  

The NASA project has been a highlight of his college tenure. 

“It’s been an amazing experience,” he said. “Having this project on my resume has given me a lot of opportunities.” 

For their participation, the UNF team receives scholarships funded by NASA, the project and the Florida Space Grant Consortium. In addition to participating in the eclipse project, Ott participates in the NASA High Altitude Student Payload project, which UNF has been involved in since 2008. In September 2023, Ott and his teammates launched the UNF ozone sensors payload into the stratosphere from Palestine, Texas. 

Although he says the NASA projects have presented challenges, from losing communication with the payload to retrieving the balloon from someone’s backyard, Ott says the experience has been fun, in large part because of Dr. Patel’s leadership. 

Colin Ott with Nasa project team member and Dr. PatelDr. Patel is proud of the work UNF students are doing in collaboration with NASA — especially the engineering seniors currently working on the NEBP including Ott, Dustin Leonard and Cory Pare. He said they are all independent scientists working on highly technologically-oriented space research and engineering projects. 

Other faculty members like Dr. Hemani Kaushal, assistant professor of electrical engineering, are also impressed with Ott’s work ethic. 

“Colin’s ability to successfully navigate both academic commitments and extracurricular responsibilities underscores the exceptional qualities that make him stand out as a role model for aspiring engineers,” Kaushal said. 

Aside from staying busy with NASA projects and coursework, Ott serves as president of the UNF IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers) student club, which offers students opportunities to experience engineering outside of the classroom through projects, tutoring and other activities. Currently, the club is performing upgrades to its lab with the goal of helping students gain easier access to tools and equipment needed for projects. 

Overcoming Challenges
While Ott says he’s had a great college experience at UNF, he wasn’t immune to some of the stress he faced with some personal challenges last fall and sought on-campus support which he says helped him develop strategies that have proved to be beneficial. 

He says, through this experience, he encourages others to seek help if they ever feel overwhelmed. 

“It’s just a matter of reaching out and asking people for help — whether it be for your class work or your mental health,” said Ott. “It’s very easy to forget that you have resources available to you that are willing to extend a hand to help you.” 

UNF senior Colin Ott standing in front of a campus builingPreparing for Graduation and Reflection
As he prepares for his upcoming graduation in May, Ott has accepted a full-time position working in Clearwater, Florida, as a systems engineer for Entrust Solutions, an automotive and utilities company. His role will include working with different software and developing solutions-based responses to various systems. 

Reflecting upon his college journey, he says that he will always cherish his time at UNF. 

“My experience at UNF has been great. I have met a lot of amazing people between faculty and students,” said Ott. “The faculty here care about their students and they are willing to go above and beyond, and my peers have always been supportive.” 

He also credits his family and friends for their constant support and motivation throughout his college career. 

“I want to make them proud, so I refuse to give up even when it gets tough.”