Always up for an intriguing project
Alumnus has built a rocket, researched leopard seals, and interned at NASA Langley Research Center on his way to a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering
Wednesday, July 31, 2019
headshot tynan guerra

Tynan Guerra is not one to shy away from a challenge, especially if aerospace engineering principles can be applied. Nor is he intimidated by failure.

Tynan’s interest in aerospace engineering—rocket science, if you will—began at Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio when friends pressured him into taking a rocketry class during his senior year. “It was 22 guys working in the auditorium basement trying to build a rocket capable of reaching an altitude of 100,000 feet,” he explains. Shortly before entering Trinity in 2012, they launched the rocket atWhite Sands, New Mexico. Although the rocket performed dismally, failing to reach anywhere near that height “it quite literally ignited my interest in aerospace engineering.”

Although Trinity doesn’t offer an aerospace engineering degree option, Tynan was drawn to its small size and broad engineering curriculum, which he thought would be “a great platform on which to start a career in a field as interdisciplinary as aerospace engineering.” Despite his demanding double majors and a minor in mathematics, Tynan played on the Ultimate Frisbee team and participated in Omega Phi fraternity. He also developed close relationships with his professors, especially Mahbub Uddin and Jack Leifer in engineering, and Brian Miceli in mathematics. 

Thanks to their support and letters of recommendation, Tynan was accepted at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to begin a master’s program in aerospace engineering. His work there, which he gets a kick out of talking about, was inspired by leopard seals, a species his master’s advisor had developed an interest in while working at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia. For Tynan, studying why leopard seals are such efficient swimmers sounded like “a whimsical, interesting, and unconventional application of an aerospace engineering education,” and he hopped on the project. His work on the subject became the basis of his master’s thesis. 

tynan guerra in nasa shirt and helmet

In the midst of his studies at Cal Poly, Tynan landed an internship at NASA Langley Research Center during their centennial year in 2017. At Langley he worked in the Probe Calibration Tunnel, a small wind tunnel that runs at Mach 3.5. “Interning at NASA was a dream come true,” he says. “It also directed me towards computational work instead of experimental work. I’d love to return to Langley and work with a different branch that does this kind of stuff.”

Also while at Cal Poly, Tynan and two buddies launched Lost Coast, a start-up venture to design and build the next generation of surfboards. The product was a smart surfboard fin, equipped with sensors that would record force and GPS data, and process it into meaningful data, sort of like a “FitBit for surfers.” “We wanted to utilize some of the tools we had become experienced with throughout our aerospace education to design a fin based on numbers that would show whether the fin is effective.” 

Despite not being a surfer himself, Tynan joined the venture because he relished the opportunity of working with great friends and also because the project was “an opportunity to use our aerospace backgrounds on a really unconventional application and that really excited me.” The project won $5,000 in Cal Poly's Innovation Quest competition and another $10,00 when it was accepted into Cal Poly Hot House, a summer incubator program. Ultimately, the project lost steam as the three partners faced more immediate and practical matters like finishing their master’s degrees, seeking employment, and in Tynan’s case, entering a doctoral program in aerospace engineering. 

Admittedly, “there were definitely issues with the product that we uncovered that I’m not sure we could have solved, but I learned a ton through the process, one thing being that I don’t think start-up life is for me.” 

What is for Tynan, at least at the moment, is working on his doctorate degree at North Carolina State. He is parlaying his work at Cal Poly, where he used existing software to study fluid dynamics. “For my Ph.D. I’m basically writing my own code (more specifically, improving the code my advisor wrote) to study turbulent mixing in scramjet engines. I avoided coding like the plague at Trinity (out of fear),” he says, “ but I’m starting to really enjoy it.” He enjoys being a teaching assistant as well, something he also did at Cal Poly and Trinity. So far he has mainly led labs but hopes to deliver a few lectures before he graduates. 

Long term, Tynan would like to work in a government research lab or teach. When time permits, he still enjoys Ultimate Frisbee, along with new interests in cooking and working on The New York Times crossword. He also remains close to his Trinity professors. “I always try to stop in and say ‘Hi’ when I’m in San Antonio!”

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