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Engineering graduate rockets to success

28 March 2024

At just 21, Alicia Smith has already landed her dream job, led an aerospace team to victory in an international competition and won an elite scholarship.

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Photo caption: After graduating with a Bachelor of Engineering with Honours from the University of Canterbury, Alicia Smith has already found a job she loves with Rocket Lab. Photo credit: Sam Walls

Now working for Rocket Lab in Auckland, Alicia will be back in her hometown Ōtautahi Christchurch next week to celebrate graduating with a Bachelor of Engineering with Honours degree in Mechanical Engineering from Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC).

She’ll also be presented with a Distinguished Undergraduate Award from the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), becoming just the second non-American student to receive one of these prestigious international awards. The Frederick A. Tarantino Memorial Scholarship Award comes with US$5,000.

Hearing she had won the USRA scholarship came as a shock. “I almost didn’t apply because I counted myself out. I thought no way is some girl from New Zealand going to win this award. When I look at the other incredible candidates it feels unbelievable to have been selected.”

Alicia says her academic experiences at UC, and being an active member of the student-led UC Aerospace club, including a year as president, helped launch her career in a competitive industry.

“There were some UC staff members who really backed me, looked out for me and sometimes pushed me quite hard, which was really good. Having the Aerospace Engineering minor degree offered at UC for the first time in 2022 was awesome because it gave me more aerospace background than most students are able to get in New Zealand. I also worked part-time as an engineering intern for Dawn Aerospace in my final year.”

Leading the UC Aerospace club team in the 2023 Spaceport America Cup, where university student teams from around the world compete to design, build and launch rockets in the New Mexico desert, was the biggest highlight of her time at UC. The UC team won their category and placed third overall in the prestigious event. Alicia says her involvement gave her an edge when she successfully applied for an internship in Rocket Lab’s Propulsion Development team.

“I gained project experience, technical skills and leadership through the club. These are definitely things that employers are looking for in these competitive industries.

“The job is exactly what I want to be doing and where I want to be working. At the moment I get to do some really interesting and impactful work on engine systems for satellite missions,” she says.

Alicia was fascinated with space exploration even as a child and is now particularly interested in how space-based technology can be harnessed to grow new crops and potentially develop new medicines and treatments that will benefit people on Earth. Eventually she would love to have the opportunity to travel into space.

“I want to know what’s out there. Figuring out how we can benefit humanity with what we discover and what we do in space is something I’m really passionate about.”

Part of this drive stems from the loss of her mum, a biochemist and genetic engineer, who died of cancer when Alicia was in her second year at UC.

“My mum dying when I was 19 knocked the world off its axis and my life completely off track,” she says. “Working through that time and staying at university was probably the biggest challenge I had to face in my four years of study, but I think I built up resilience and was able to get up and get back to it.”

She says her mum always encouraged her to focus on achieving her goals and following her dreams. “So even when things got really hard there was a part of me that just couldn’t give up. Mum was my biggest supporter, so it’s been hard to have a lot of my achievements happen without her being here. I know she’d be proud of me.”

Read more of our graduate success stories here.

SDG 4 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 - Quality education.

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