Skye Jerpbak ’16

Skye Jerpbak ’16 admits to being an engineer from the get-go. “Sometimes I wonder if I had a choice when I chose mechanical and aerospace engineering,” she says. “My name is Skye. How could I not choose the field that studied flight?”

Growing up in a small rural California community called Rescue, a former stop on the Pony Express trail, “I always have loved math and science,” she says. “When I was little I was fascinated by how things worked. I was constantly taking things apart and putting them back together; anything that required logic was right up my alley.”

“I was going to be an engineer, there was no question there: the way I think, how I love to solve problems and how I cringe when things are not efficient. MAE seemed like a natural choice.”

Skye especially likes to observe the flight of a softball that squeezes past a shortstop’s outstretched glove or soars over an outfield wall. As a key player on Princeton’s women’s softball team, she hit .245 while playing in 40 games and making 39 starts last season, primarily as catcher. She was named Ivy League Player of the Week on March 3.

“I love the power behind the ball as it pops off the bat. I love the intensity, passion and energy that comes from game day when I step on the field with my team ready to compete,” says Skye, who has played softball since she was 5. “There is no other feeling like it. It’s fun, and it’s what has captured my heart.”

Although she concedes that her twin commitments to sports and academics can be a struggle at times, the 21-year-old wouldn’t have it any other way. “It is me doing what I love, she says. “Softball forces me to manage my time well and gives me something to focus my energy on. I have to give things up sometimes, but I couldn't do school without softball.”

When she’s not on campus or the athletic field, Skye puts her engineering interests and knowledge to work in distant locales. She spent much of this past summer in central China, working for the Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology.

“I spent time helping construct a rammed-earth village center and contributed design ideas and aesthetic improvements,” she said.  “I also had the opportunity to travel all over China and visit many different landscapes and cultures. In some aspects I was a tourist, but in many other situations I got to see and learn much more than a tourist would ever get to see or do.”

The summer of 2014 took her to another continent and a far different challenge, working with an organization called Bridges to Prosperity in Rwanda.

“We helped build footbridges in rural areas to provide the villagers with safe access to school, health care and markets. It was a perfect opportunity. I love bridges, hands-on construction, and helping others,” she says. “My engineering background helped me with the technical aspects and the calculations involved with designing bridges. It was great to see what I had learned in the classroom in actual application.”

Skye has teamed up with MAE classmate and fellow athlete Karen MacDonald, a defenseman on the Princeton women’s hockey team, for a challenging senior independent work (thesis) project: building a drone that she says will be able to "both fly and swim.”

Their adviser, professor Luigi Martinelli, describes as “very ambitious” their proposal to build a small UAS (unmanned aircraft system) that also can operate underwater. “The transition between underwater operation and atmospheric flight is very challenging and is the subject of contemporary research in industry,” he says. “I look forward to learning what airframe configuration they will select.”

During her years at Princeton, Skye also has been a member of the Student Volunteers Council from the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, participating in the Mercer Street Food Bank project.

“I chose Princeton because it was the best of both worlds — a phenomenal academic experience while allowing me to continue playing the sport that I love,” she says. “At Princeton I could learn from the best, and study both mechanical and aerospace engineering while also taking courses across multiple disciples.”

With many avenues available to her, she remains uncertain about her post-graduation plans. “My MAE degree opens so many doors across many different fields.  I’m still deciding which I would like to work in,” she says. “Currently, the aircraft industry is tempting, but I’m not sure. I need to keep exploring all of my options.”

– Doug Hulette