How This 2024 NSF Fellowship Recipient’s Co-op Blossomed Into a Full-Time Career

Alumni

Jonathan Gray, E’16, mechanical engineering, is the recipient of the 2024 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which will contribute to his PhD in aerospace engineering at UCLA. Since 2016, he has worked as a project engineer at ATA Engineering, where he completed his first co-op.


Jonathan Gray, E’16, mechanical engineering, was recently awarded the prestigious 2024 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, an achievement that was a long time coming. Since 2016, he has worked as a project engineer at ATA Engineering, where he originally worked while on co-op. Now he is pursuing a PhD in aerospace engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles while balancing a more limited role at ATA.

Gray’s Northeastern journey began when he transferred from Boston University. Seeking a better source of financial aid for school, he found Northeastern’s co-op program, which would help him fund his education while gaining real experience in the workforce. Gray grew up near the University of Cincinnati, which had the first ever co-op program in the country and inspired Northeastern’s co-op programs in the early 1900s. As a result, he was already familiar with the co-op format and was pleased to learn that Northeastern had a similar program of their own.

“I’ve been aware of co-op programs from other schools [because] I grew up in Cincinnati,” Gray says. “The University of Cincinnati started the co-op program, and when I found out Northeastern had one, it piqued my interest because not many places have a program that’s built into your academic experience.”

As Gray transitioned out of Boston University, he had the opportunity to learn about co-op at Northeastern and the reputation of the College of Engineering. The following year, he officially applied. In retrospect, he realizes that Northeastern was the right place for him from the start and that he was fortunate to find what he was looking for in the Boston area.

“It was kind of a happy accident that I ended up applying to Northeastern because it was probably the school that was best positioned for my success,” Gray says.

His first co-op experience at ATA Engineering would turn into a full-time position later down the line, but it gave him a good first impression of how co-op could help define his career goals. Gray travelled to the West Coast for the first time to work at the company’s headquarters in San Diego. Unlike most co-ops, ATA Engineering committed him to more than one six-month session, giving him more time to get to know the company.

“I had signed up for two six-month sessions, so I went to San Diego for my first one in 2013 to 2014, and in 2014 to 2015, I went to the Rocky Mountain office in Denver, which is another branch of ATA,” Gray says.

At ATA, most of his focus was spent on structural analysis, particularly on projects involving spacecraft and launch vehicles. Gray was able to use tools from class such as finite element analysis to predict the response of large structures, allowing him to appreciate the complicated work that went into ATA’s projects.

“You can read about it, and you can learn about examples in class, but when you work on these large projects and you’re analyzing these complex systems, you gain a perspective that’s unique to it,” Gray says.

Gray reviewing the design for the coring drill of NASA’s Perseverance rover.

After having plenty of experience with ATA, he decided to take a different path and seek out a new experience. For his final co-op, Gray worked at Tesla in Palo Alto as a CAE engineer. This allowed him to compare and contrast different opportunities through full-time work. Much of his work at Tesla consisted of analysis and testing, so he often visited test sites to monitor the tests. Especially due to Tesla, Gray gained respect for how different teams of engineers collaborate.

“One of the things was how much goes into the analysis of any structure; it’s really a lot, and it’s not something that you would necessarily get from any education program that doesn’t have co-op,” Gray says. “It really helped me to become the engineer that I am today, and I could hit the ground running as soon as I graduated.”

Outside of classes and co-op, Gray participated in a challenge organized at Northeastern known as Engineering for the Greater Good. Essentially, the challenge was for a group of engineering students to design a beneficial project that would have a broader impact on a community. Gray’s team’s project focused on navigating clean water resources in sub-Saharan Africa, where an existing technology allowed for the transport of large tanks of water. To improve this technology, the team devised a system to use light radiation to kill any potentially harmful microorganisms and bacteria in the water. The project was a success and ended up winning a competition and leaving a positive impact on a community in need.

Reconnecting with ATA after graduating was a smooth and organic process for Gray. While he was there on co-op, there was already a mutual interest in him continuing his work after graduation, so the company was happy to have him back. He works out of the company’s Los Angeles office, which makes it easier to balance his work for ATA and his Ph.D. research at UCLA. It seems like the obvious choice for him now, but he needed the co-op experience for him to realize that.

“ATA wasn’t on my radar until I learned about these new places, and it opens your eyes in ways that you might not have been able to see if you don’t have that experience early on,” Gray says.

Gray during a flight lesson in Los Angeles with ATA Engineering.

Now that he is a fully committed employee at ATA, he has additional responsibilities that vastly expand upon his co-op experience. Not only has he been keeping active in various projects, but he has also started to help manage some of these projects. Much of his recent work has been devoted to materials characterization after being promoted to a managerial role for the group.

“My responsibility there is to assist the technical director of that group in tackling really difficult problems that deal with being able to model advanced material systems,” Gray says. “These material systems can vary from additive manufactured metals to fiber-reinforced composites to soft materials, so it really ranges.”

After seven years at ATA, Gray decided to pursue a PhD in aerospace engineering at UCLA, where he conducts research in the Mechanics of Soft Materials Lab with Professor Lihua Jin. Gray says that he always wanted to complete a graduate program, but after graduating from Northeastern, he decided to bide his time and gain more experience in the workforce first to get a clearer vision of what he was looking for.

“At that point, I was still looking for purpose out of a Ph.D. program or the grad school program that I wanted to pursue,” Gray says. “One of the best ways to do that was to go into industry and work on some hard problems to get an understanding of what the state of the art is and where I could potentially focus as a Ph.D. student.”

Reflecting on his full-time work at ATA, he says that it was a cross section between industry and academia in the way that it combined commercial work and innovative small business research. Due to having a heavy involvement in so many long-term research projects, Gray was able to get a much more complete perspective on what he would focus on in grad school.

In April 2024, Gray was awarded the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. For him, it holds significance both as a personal milestone and a step towards increasing diverse representation in STEM.

Gray receiving recognition for his NSF fellowship at Northeastern’s awards convocation.

“I think it’s really important to make sure that our national fabric is represented in the opportunities and work that we do as professionals,” Gray says. “Having the ability to talk about the merit of my work and present a research statement that is the culmination of everything I’ve learned about engineering and the research I’ve done was a rewarding process.”

Gray is expecting to graduate with a PhD in 2027, but until then, he says that receiving the NSF Fellowship has inspired and motivated him a great deal.

“It strengthens my ability to focus on my research in the program that I’m in and give back,” Gray says. “Being able to move forward beyond my PhD and give back to help others follow in those footsteps is part and parcel of what I’m trying to accomplish.”

Related Departments:Mechanical & Industrial Engineering