When it’s actually rocket science

Driven by discovery and the exciting prospect of interstellar travel

From orientation to space propulsion… a lot can happen in first year.

Just like everybody else, Harmohit was excited to start university. And just like so many, he found that first week overwhelming. He was new to the university campus. He was new to residence. And he was new to Canada.

Harmohit's from India. Delhi to be exact. He decided to come to Waterloo because of our co-op program and opportunities for entrepreneurship, as well as how easy our campus was to get around. Although he was excited about coming to Canada, he realized quickly how big of a culture shock a new country was to him, and he started feeling homesick. So, he decided to immerse himself in a few activities to keep his loneliness to a minimum. He started with finding a group of friends also from India. They explored Waterloo together and helped each other out. Soon his friendships expanded to those in his residence and classes. The more he put himself out there the more he found his time productive and happy.

He felt ready to tackle some challenges outside of class. He was interested in joining a club and learned about the Waterloo Rocketry team. All he did was ask to join and they were thrilled to have him come on board. Proof that just a simple question could end in something life changing.

All this time I tried to be social and meet new people. I attended events organized by Physics Club, Science Society, Residence Council, and more. I especially loved the week-long Humans vs. Zombies game where opposing teams hunt for enemies around campus.

A personalized lab coat used in the physics lab at Waterloo.

Harmohit's personalized lab coat.

A good problem to have

Harmohit's first term at Waterloo was incredibly positive. He was enjoying his Physics major, had some great new friends, and was on the Rocketry team. He attended entrepreneurship workshops through Concept Science (mostly for the free pizza) but they really got his brain buzzing – especially when they mentioned the Problem Pitch competition, hosted by Waterloo's Problem Lab. Harmohit was already thinking about a big problem in physics… space propulsion and its limits.

You see, when you travel to space, you need to escape Earth's atmosphere and get into orbit. Once in orbit, you need power to travel to your destination (i.e., Mars, Pluto, etc.). At current abilities (using solar power or plutonium batteries), with only a meager 30kg of cargo, it takes nine months to travel to Mars and 10 years to travel to Pluto. So, how can we decrease the time of travel and increase the cargo weight? That's the problem that Harmohit decided to pitch.

It took three tries, but eventually he won the competition and was awarded $15,000 in funding for research and development of his project – covering the costs for the mathematical models and computer simulations necessary to prove his idea might work. He proposes that advanced propulsion, like fission, fusion, anti-matter, etc., would be required and is working to develop the critical technologies common to all of them.

Current propulsion systems not only hinder our ability to transport scientific equipment in space, they also limit our ability to mine resources from asteroids.

Harmohit (left) wins the Quantum Valley Investments ® Problem Pitch.

Harmohit (left) wins the Quantum Valley Investments ® Problem Pitch.

All it takes is one yes

Once he has his mind set to something, Harmohit isn’t one to stop trying. He wanted a summer job, specifically in a research lab. He was told it wasn’t common for first-year students to land research positions, but after speaking with several of his professors (and some who weren’t his professors) he realized that one yes is all it takes.

That summer he worked at the Institute for Polymer Research, a premier science and engineering facility that works to solve industry problems in plastics, rubber, and other non-conductive materials. Harmohit focused his work on foldamers, artificial molecules that mimic the ability of proteins, nucleic acids (DNA/RNA), and polysaccharides (sugars) to fold into well-defined formations. This type of research has the potential to help areas of concern for humans, such as medicine, and Harmohit was excited to be a part of something in the exploratory stage of development.

Some foldamer experiments in a Waterloo physics lab.

Foldamers research, which involves artificial molecules that mimic the ability of proteins, nucleic acids (DNA/RNA), and polysaccharides (sugars) to fold into well-defined formations, has the potential to help in areas such as medicine.

Harmohit's passion for physics and a desire to get involved pushed him beyond his comfort level – to not be afraid of rejection. He really takes the attitude of “what's the worst that could happen?” because if you don’t take that chance, you may miss out on a life-changing experience.

Advice for all students, international or otherwise…

Who knew so much could happen to someone who felt homesick in his first week of university? But this is the power of asking questions. Harmohit's passion for physics and a desire to get involved pushed him beyond his comfort level – to not be afraid of rejection. He really takes the attitude of "what's the worst that could happen?" because if you don’t take that chance, you may miss out on a life-changing experience.

During his summer, the Physics Club offered the opportunity for students to present their own lecture on topics not typically covered in class. He presented on nuclear reactor physics – something he has clearly become passionate about.

What's next for Harmohit? He's currently in second year and has his first co-op term working at Eversana, a life sciences-based consulting and patient service organization.