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Leading students toward a future of renewable energy

Assistant Professor Nicholas Rolston educates next generation of space scientists with help from NewSpace Initiative

Nicholas Rolston

Assistant Professor Nicholas Rolston.

May 03, 2024

Nicholas Rolston, assistant professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, one of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, has found his passion in educating the next generation of innovative space scientists.

And with them, he is creating a future powered by renewable energy.

Rolston’s research and teaching focuses on photovoltaics and its potential as a sustainable and cost-effective source of energy.

“I started teaching here at ASU just over two years ago ... and it's just been really rewarding and fantastic to work with so many great students,” Rolston said. “More than any of the research or any of the things that I work on, which I'm very passionate about, it’s mostly about being able to work with the next generation of leaders.”

Part of Rolston’s success has been through his connection with ASU NewSpace, an initiative that facilitates academic-commercial partnerships in the space industry sector. In honor of National Space Day on May 3, we're highlighting his work with the initiative.

At a colleague's recommendation, Rolston started writing a NASA early career proposal but discovered the process to be somewhat intimidating. So he reached out to Scott Smas, associate director of the NewSpace Initiative, to help mentor him through the process. 

“Scott introduced me to this whole ecosystem at NewSpace and provided me with expert contacts … and they’ve helped connect me with industry partners,” Rolston said.

So far, the NewSpace team has impacted Rolston’s career in big ways.

Among the multiple industry partners Rolston has been exposed to, he says one stands out: Astrobotic, a company based in Pittsburgh that specializes in creating affordable space missions — and is home to one of the largest private lunar logistics facilities in the world.

Through conferences and giving presentations, Rolston was able to meet the Astrobotic team. Since then, he has hosted Astrobotic for lab tours and is now a partner on NASA research grants.

Rolston and his team are also working on a large-scale Air Force proposal using next-generation space power and consulted with NewSpace to understand what some of the focuses are.

Not only is Rolston able to benefit from these industry connections, but his students have been positively impacted as well.

Two of Rolston’s engineering undergraduate students — Erin Burgard and Kay Bakshi — have both been NASA Space Grant fellows, sponsored by New Space.

“What is unique is that NewSpace clearly isn't just for faculty. It brings in connections to ASU, but most importantly, it's serving students too and giving them tangible opportunities to develop,” Rolston said.

“Our best product in the lab is the people that come out of it, and I couldn't be more proud,” he said. “Ultimately, I think my biggest accomplishment overall is really just in the growth of the students.”

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