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Alumni Profile - Elio Morillo

From Ecuador to Mars: The Journey of Elio Morillo, 2017 U-M Integrative Systems + Design Graduate

Recent ISD Systems Engineering + Design graduate Elio Morillo has spent the last seven years as a student in Ann Arbor. Born in Ecuador, Elio lived in New York and Puerto Rico before becoming a University of Michigan (U-M) undergrad student, studying mechanical and electrical engineering. As an ISD graduate student, Elio served as the mechanical lead for the Michigan Bicentennial Archive CubeSat team, interned with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and taught classes as a graduate student instructor. He is also the recipient of the 2015 MLK Spirit Award, the Epeians Rising Leader Award, and an ISD Systems Engineering + Design Department Fellowship.
In his journal below, Elio opens up about his time as an ISD student, his aspirations and path to becoming an engineer, and offers advice to incoming students.

At the age of four, my mother and I fled Ecuador, escaping personal hardships and a collapsing economy. We moved to New York City, where our family received us with open arms. My mother worked strenuous hours to make ends meet. She did not speak english fluently, and after two years the language barrier led us to move to Puerto Rico. My brother had recently married an islander, and we were happy at the chance to reunite with more family.

In Puerto Rico, my mother and I lived in several cramped apartments, never owned a vehicle, and did not have internet for many years.  We lived near my brother, his wife, and their two daughters. My brother did not finish college and worked as a store clerk to support his family. My mother worked over 60 hours a week while raising me as a single mother.  She had 30 years experience as a teacher, spanning special, elementary, and university education, which allowed her to find work as an educator.  After school hours, she tutored for extra income. Some of the students she tutored became family, and we remain connected to this day. I attended school and was enrolled in after-school weekly art classes at the Centro de Bellas Artes. Painting taught me early on that projects could not be completed in a single sitting and required hours of dedication to details - an important lesson I abide by to this day!

After eight years in Puerto Rico, my mother and I returned to New York. My mother continued to work two jobs. We lived in south Brooklyn, so our commutes to work and school were at least 40 minutes each way by public transportation. I attended NEST+m High School in the Lower East Side. At night, I sometimes helped my mom clean offices in Midtown. Throughout our journey, my mother emphasized the importance of education and hard work. I understand the sacrifices my mother made so I could secure a bright future.

Inspired by the technology of the US Air Force, I knew I wanted to be an engineer. In high school I took eleven advanced placement courses, conducted astrophysics research in partnership with New York University, and presented results at the 2010 Astronomical Society Conference. After participating in the 2010 Cooper Union robotics summer program, I was inspired to be an engineer who could build marvelous aircraft and super suits. I learned computer-aided design, embedded software, and manufacturing processes. Seeking out resources through my high school, and with guidance from my teachers and college counselor, I became a Michigan Wolverine.

I aspire to become an exemplary embodiment of the legacy of the leaders and best of ISD’s System Engineering + Design program. I started taking steps in this direction by taking classes for my electrical engineering minor focused in systems during my undergraduate studies. Specifically, I took classes focusing on communications, control, and signal processing to understand system analysis. Through my mechanical engineering classes, I also learned about manufacturing systems design and applied that knowledge across my professional experiences.

The master's program in Systems Engineering + Design has a curriculum that provided a deeper educational background to design system architectures, develop and manage specifications, verify and validate systems, and ultimately deliver complex products. I will leverage my degree to transition from engineering design to engineering management, and later to an executive role at an aerospace firm. Additionally, I will continue to provide a lasting impact in underrepresented communities in my efforts through the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, promoting higher education and science, technology, engineering, and mathematic related initiatives.

As an ISD student, I also had the unique opportunity to lead the Structures Team of the Michigan Bicentennial Archive CubeSat (MBARC). Through this role, I was fortunate to work with a team of talented individuals tasked with a challenge like never before: send a time capsule to space to orbit the Earth for 100 years. The MBARC CubeSat, whose development started in fall 2015, will carry a payload of historically important information including interviews of members of the university community. A long-term DNA radiation experiment is also included to provide insights into radiation effects on synthetic DNA. The MBARC CubeSat will be placed into a stable orbit and tracked for the next 100 years.

The Bicentennial Celebration is a chance to reflect on the great contributions to society made by U-M and its students, current and former. As the university enters its third century, the MBARC team makes its own contribution with the space-based time capsule and an artistic sculpture that will be built on campus to commemorate this achievement – to be a visible representation of what is in orbit. In approximately 100 years, a second group of U-M students will develop a mission to retrieve the time capsule and return it to Earth. MBARC is a high-profile mission as part of the Bicentennial Celebration.

Through the ISD Systems Engineering + Design program I have been mentored by an array of high-level engineers, including Dr. Robert Bordley, previous manager of the General Motors Research & Development portfolio; Dr. Donald Winter, the 76th Secretary of the Navy; and Dr. Leonard Fisk, the current president of the Committee on Space Research and previous NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science Application. Their guidance, stories, and personal counsel have been remarkable.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to be a student within ISD. To aspiring graduate students, the best piece of advice I can offer is this:  You do not need to pay for graduate school out of pocket. Coming from a low-income background, I found there were many fellowships and scholarships to help me cover all costs. Do not let fear be a reason to stop you from seeking an amazing opportunity.  

Starting May 2017, Los Angeles will become my new home. I will be joining the Mars 2020 team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The work will mostly focus on testing the Mars 2020 system and ensuring we can operate successfully upon arrival to Mars. For those who have seen “The Martian,” I’m like one of the guys who test the Martian rovers using the Earth equivalents.

I am thankful to my family, especially my mom, for their constant support.  Without their sacrifice, I would never have been able to fulfill my dreams. I would also like to give my brother a shout-out for finishing a bachelor’s degree in information systems recently! Lastly, thank you to ISD for fostering an environment in which I was able to grow as an engineer. Go Blue!