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Eric Sheppard
Assistant Professor of Aerospace Science Engineering
Tuskegee University

Picture: Eric Sheppard


Eric was born in 1961 in Brooklyn, NY and lived there until 1971 when his family moved to Westbrook, Maine where he graduated from high school in 1979. He went to Boston University for a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering, and to Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his Master's of Science and the Doctor of Science degrees in Aeronautics and Astronautics. Eric's main interests are in space propulsion, fluid mechanics, design, and combustion. He joined the Tuskegee University faculty in January, 1994, where he is an Assistant Professor of Aerospace Science Engineering.

Eric wears a below-elbow prosthesis on his left arm. He is proud to say that he helped design his latest prosthesis with his friends at Maine Artificial Limb.

Question 1: Can you describe your job?

There are 3 parts to my job:

1. Academics - I teach courses in propulsion, aerodynamics, and other related areas to juniors and seniors in our department. Many of our students want to design airplanes. Some go on to graduate school and find careers in the aeronautics industry. Some go into the military through the college ROTC program.

2. Research - I work in the area of propulsion, which is the study of the devices that make aerospace vehicles move. I try to understand mixing gas and plasma flows and combustion. I enjoy the mental challenge of research as well as the chance to work with both professors and students on projects.

3. Service - Tuskegee is a historically black university with a tradition of teachers taking the responsibility to provide extra service to the students. For example, I have lived in the student residence halls so I can get to know the students and advise them on an informal basis, and so that the students might see that teachers have lots of homework too!

Question 2: How did you get interested in aeronautics?

My father was a great influence on me. He is an airplane mechanic by trade, and he started his career as a mechanic with the famous Tuskegee Airmen. He was always interested in aerospace and eventually worked for the Federal Aviation Administration. So I was exposed to lots of airplanes in my youth.

Also, growing up with the Apollo space program got me interested in rockets. I always had a general interest in science and aeronautics.

Question 3: Is learning math important if you want to have a career in aeronautics?

Math is very important in all the engineering fields. It's important because in order to analyze aerospace vehicle performance, you need to understand the language of science, which is mathematics. All the math disciplines - including geometry, calculus, trigonometry, and algebra - are important.

The key thing is to be able to understand what's happening in the world through math. You might not have to use all the math that you learned every day, but if you have a firm understanding of math it will help you understand how the real world works. As engineers we are interested in how the real world works and math is a great tool to help us understand it.

Question 4: What's easy and what's hard about your job?

Working in a field that you love makes it easy even if the problems that you are working on are very hard.

One hard part about teaching is making sure that everyone in the classroom learns something. And the hardest thing is evaluating students - grading their work.

In astronautics, the challenges are the problems with high speed flight, in my area of interest - propulsion. It's challenging because there are lots of environmental issues, too, such as the gases and noise coming from the airplane or rocket that need to be figured out.

Sometimes you're faced with solving problems that are hard due to the mathematics. Sometimes the physical description that you are using for the real world is tricky. Today, computers may help us to try and get answers we could not hope to get before, but computer simulation has its own difficulties.

The goal in the aeronautics field is to get the best performance out of a vehicle and keep it safe. Safety issues are sometimes difficult and always the priority for any vehicle that has people on it.

Question 5: Would you encourage young people to pursue careers in aeronautics?

Yes. There will always be a need for well trained individuals to design and test and understand and improve aircraft and rockets because these rockets and planes perform many important tasks in our society.

For students, if they love aeronautics and astronautics, then I think that is the most compelling reason to follow these interests as a career.

Question 6: Would you encourage young people to pursue careers in math?

I think there are a lot of careers in math and a need for people in mathematics. There is especially a need for good math teachers and I can't encourage people following that career too much for those who are interested.

Question 7: Is there anything you would like to say to young people with physical disabilities who are considering a career in aeronautics and/or math?

They should not feel that their disability is going to hamper their possibilities in the field. Aeronautics and astronautics are very broad sets of disciplines. For example, I do all my work on the computer and with paper and I also do work in the lab. My disability has not hindered my work in any of these areas. It might modify what I can do but it is not an obstacle that cannot be overcome.

Question 8: What challenges, if any, have you dealt with in your career due to your disability?

I've gone through mainstream schools all the way from kindergarten and besides certain purely mechanical things that I can't do, I can do most anything. For example, anything that requires the firm grasp of two hands I cannot do. But with a little help from a lab partner I manage to do most things.

To be honest, I might have liked to be an airforce pilot and I can't do that. There were some things that I couldn't do. Looking back, though, I I always wanted to be a "rocket scientist" and that's exactly what I became.

If you have a disability, you need to realize what mechanical things you can't do, but everything else should be wide open and believe me, there is A WORLD of things to do.

Question 9: Would you encourage young people with physical disabilities to pursue careers in aeronautics? In math?

Absolutely! Any career that they would love doing, they should do it. They definitely should NOT let their disability obscure their dream. If you are in a wheelchair you may not be able to fly every airplane but there are a lot of other wonderful things to do.

And perhaps someday you will be the one who flies with a wheelchair. Maybe somebody already does! You could design the next experimental plane so that you are the best pilot for it.

A paraplegic might make an excellent astronaut someday because you don't need to walk in "zero gravity". The sky is NOT the limit!

Question 10: Is there anything else you would like to say to young people?

You should explore your interests. Watch all the videos and TV shows about space, geography, science, math, and airplanes. Read books and magazines to find out what really excites you.

You should think in terms of possibilities rather than disabilities. And that goes for every person. Just because you have a disability doesn't mean that you have to have a different way of choosing what you love.

Good Luck!

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