Class of 2022: Julia Pimentel hopes to lead in the march to space
With a job and an acceptance to graduate school secured, this high-achieving Hokie is crafting a career spanning aerospace, mechanical, and materials science and engineering.
“Always aspire to exceed expectations” is Julia Pimentel's motto. A born leader with a lifelong curiosity for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), Pimentel has spent the past four years integrating her personal motto of excellence with Virginia Tech’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).
For these reasons and others, Pimentel was chosen as this year's outstanding senior for the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
Growing up in Northern Virginia, Pimentel was fascinated by space and the materials technology surrounding the space shuttle program. She even led her middle school Girl Scout troop on a tour of the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, to share her passion for STEM. She aspired to one day work as an engineer at an aerospace company.
Pimentel’s family greatly influenced the direction of her academic interests. Her formative years fostered a strong appreciation of science and technology, with her mother working as a nurse and her father specializing in information technology. Pimentel also noted that with three siblings (one older, two younger) on the autism spectrum, she recognized very early that she may be the only one of her siblings to earn a college degree, and she is proud that she will become the first engineer in her family.
“That was a major driving factor for me to pursue a career path that was sustainable and that would provide financial security,” she said.
When it was time to get serious about a college major, Pimentel had a difficult time choosing because she wanted to pursue both mechanical and aerospace engineering. She decided materials science and engineering (MSE) would be the best fit, enabling her to apply niche materials knowledge to advanced materials and manufacturing in the aerospace industry. She strengthened her multidisciplinary mindset by taking graduate courses related to advanced manufacturing and mechanics.
Making her mark
In 2018, when Pimentel walked into her Introduction to Materials Engineering class, she made a strong first impression on Christine Burgoyne, director of the department's Engineering Communications Program. First, Pimentel was carrying a huge electric skateboard, and second, she exhibited a strong, engaging personality. When Burgoyne later discovered that Pimentel served as editor-in-chief for the College of Engineering’s student-staffed magazine, Engineer’s Forum, she immediately invited Pimentel to join the communications team as a teaching assistant.
“Julia has spent the last two years playing an integral part in the program as a communications and professional development student coach for the younger MSE students,” Burgoyne said.
Pimentel has helped her fellow students write research papers for nontechnical audiences, prepare a product pitch for ceramics, write technical lab reports, and prepare resumes for job fairs.
“Students tend to easily follow her lead,” Burgoyne said. “Her big presence is substantiated not only with the immense breadth of her work as a student and a young materials science engineer, but also in her continuous desire to promote the importance of communication skills, diversity, and service.”
A glance through Pimentel’s resume provides an impressive snapshot of the broad range of endeavors that have kept her busy for the past four years. Notably, she served as senior advisor for the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers as well as lead ambassador for the university's Office of Undergraduate Research.
She has received several scholarships, including the Richard H. Warren Engineering and the Elaine B. and C. Stephen Thomas Scholarships (both awarded through the College of Engineering); the H.H. Harris Foundation Scholarship (awarded through the American Foundry Society); the Marching Virginian Fred Gibson Family Scholarship; and an Office of Naval Research Stipend.
Pimentel traces her propensity for leadership back to her childhood when she had to grow up quickly and learn to take charge among her siblings. Upon entering college, she found multiple avenues to strengthen interpersonal relationships and technical acuity.
Pimentel quickly found a home in the Frith Engineering Design Laboratory, where students engage in hands-on learning, peer-mentoring, and problem-solving. This experience opened the door to undergraduate research in the Design, Research, and Education for Additive Manufacturing Systems Laboratory in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. She also pursued aerospace, mechanical, and electrical engineering research as a Hume Research Fellow at the National Security Institute, where she taught students how to lay up and cure composites, manufacture dielectric mixture coupons, print conductive traces onto composites, and conduct mechanical testing.
She took the lead in senior design, serving as the chief engineer for a team evaluating the impact of macrostructure on ultra-high temperature ceramic ablative performance using oxyacetylene torch testing. Pimentel showed excellent leadership skills, helped keep the team moving, and held everyone accountable, said Assistant Professor Carolina Tallon, who oversaw the project.
“The most amazing thing about Julia is how on earth she can do everything that she does so well while still being so approachable and kind and happy!” Tallon said.
Out of 16 design teams competing in the department this year, Pimentel’s team was one of six finalists selected to give formal talks to compete for best project of the year in the department. The winning team will be eligible to represent the department at the American Society for Metals International competition this fall.
Pimentel’s natural leadership also spills over into her extracurricular activities. She has performed with the Marching Virginians Color Guard for four years, serving as a captain during the 2019-20 season. She taught choreography for the flag and rifle spinners who perform at half-time during Hokie football games.
She discovered a passion for the outdoors during her summer internships with Lockheed Martin Space in 2020 and 2021 in Colorado, where she climbed 14ers, including Mount Bierstadt (14,065 ft.), went cliff jumping off St. Mary’s Glacier, and skydived for the first time.
She also enjoys competing in obstacle course races, most recently winning first place in her age group in a Spartan 5K run in Arizona and in the Navy Seal Bonefrog race at Virginia Beach.
“Because a large portion of engineering work is done indoors, I love going outside and doing anything outdoors,” Pimentel said. She has accepted a full-time position as a materials engineer at Lockheed Martin’s Materials Technology Laboratory in Colorado after graduation.
“I will conduct mechanical, thermal vacuum, machine certification, and additional destructive testing of a variety of materials and flight hardware, most notably additively manufactured materials, specialty polymers, composite sandwiches, and ceramic coupons,” she said. “It’s really cool to get your hands on the actual materials that engineers will use to build spacecraft or space habitats.”
Realizing the dream
In addition to working at Lockheed Martin Space after graduation, Pimentel has also been accepted into the mechanical engineering Ph.D. program at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado, with plans to work on advanced manufacturing of ceramics.
“I’m well aware that it will be a difficult and challenging environment,” Pimentel said, but she knows it’s important to push herself. Her new career objectives include establishing herself as an aerospace materials and manufacturing subject matter expert and becoming a professor of practice.
She hopes that one day her contributions to the engineering field will advance cutting-edge technology, solve industry challenges, forefront the defense of our nation, propel space exploration, and inspire future generations of engineers.
“Continuous improvement and maximizing efficiency have always been, and will continue to be, at the heart of everything I do,” she said.