Dr. Ivett Leyva (BS '94, MS '95, PhD '99) likes to go fast. Really fast. This need for speed inspired her research interest of hypersonic aerodynamics and has led her to become a professor and department head of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University.
After earning her PhD at Caltech, Leyva worked as a mechanical engineer at GE and as a senior aerospace engineer for the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL). While working for the AFRL, Leyva helped develop one of the largest hypersonic aerodynamics basic research programs in the U.S. Leyva is a fellow of the AFRL and the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics; and she is a recipient of an Air Force Civilian Achievement Medal and two Air Force Meritorious Civilian Service Medals and Awards.
ENGenuity: How would you describe your professional contributions?
Ivett Leyva: I would describe my contributions in three arenas. First, there are the technical accomplishments, then there are the leadership/management accomplishments, and then my mentorship of students.
I transformed a boutique hypersonics basic research program into one of the largest basic research programs for hypersonic aerodynamics in the U.S. And I did that in about 4 years. I also created two basic research fly programs for hypersonics where academia was a key player or a leader, which was unheard of. I had to convince people high up in the Pentagon that these types of basic science flight experiments were worthwhile, even with all the tension about hypersonics in the world—flying two experiments rather than relying only on tests in wind tunnels, which could not provide the right environment or computations. It turned out these programs were smashing successes and brought researchers together worldwide, which was pretty cool.
ENGenuity: Is there a project you're most proud of in your career?
Leyva: Two missions—BOLT 1 and 2 [learn more about the BOLT 2 flight experiments], and then the work that I did as a researcher building a one-of-a-kind combustion research facility. The first project we did in that facility received the best paper award for combustion instabilities for liquid rocket engines.
ENGenuity: What inspired you to study aeronautics and aerospace engineering?
Leyva: I wanted to go really fast, so hypersonics was it. I wouldn't have been as passionate for low-speed flow. I wouldn't have done it for anything else except for hypersonics. Once I settled on hypersonics, then I also became a rocket scientist. But the rockets also go fast, and they allow you to propel things that go very fast. So, going fast really got me into aerospace.
ENGenuity: How has your Caltech experience influenced your career?
Leyva: Caltech taught me technical content – and the way that students were treated by faculty and staff was admirable. They made us feel so appreciated, respected, special, worthy of somebody taking a risk on you, and worthy of smart people spending their time trying to educate you. That feeling of being so valued by people who are so smart never ever left me, and that has had a huge influence on my life.
My research was a very fun and hard experience. I had the best time of my life and the worst time of my life at Caltech, and I loved it. I loved my time there. I loved how my advisor, Hans Hornung [C. L. "Kelly" Johnson Professor of Aeronautics, Emeritus], approached research; he gave me a lot of freedom. It's hard to say in just one way how Caltech influenced my life, but it influenced my life very deeply.
ENGenuity: Is there a class or professor at Caltech you remember the most?
Leyva: Paul Dimotakis [John K. Northrop Professor of Aeronautics and Professor of Applied Physics; BS '68, MS '69, PhD '73] taught me fluid mechanics in my first year of graduate school. And now I'm teaching fluid mechanics. I always remember him when I go to teach, and I really hope that I'm half as good as he was. And Dan Meiron [Fletcher Jones Professor of Aeronautics and Applied and Computational Mathematics], I love that guy! Dimotakis was an extremely hard professor but a wonderful professor. Dan Meiron was less hard and a super clear professor; he had the gift of explaining complicated things in such a beautiful way.
I'm also very grateful for my advisor, Hans G. Hornung. Without him, I wouldn't be where I am; I wouldn't be who I am. My life would be very different without him. I also enjoyed his company and his mentoring. He was a very fun person, and kind, and super smart. He drove me to my limits. He pushed me and showed me that I could do many things that I didn't even know that I could.
ENGenuity: What advice would you give to the next generation of Caltech students and alumni?
Leyva: For students, really try to soak it in and enjoy it. Enjoy the privilege of being among truly smart people—whacky as heck, weird, but wonderful. Keep up with your friends that you make at Caltech, don't forget them.
For alumni, give back. Don't forget Caltech. There is some pride in giving back—giving back as a thank you for what we received.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite story that you've recently read or watched?
Leyva: I liked Bram Stoker's Dracula. I really don't like horror books or movies, but this was a surprise. I've probably never really watched a horror movie because I don't like them. But I was a part of a book club, and they chose Dracula, and with a lot of hesitation and peer pressure I decided to read the book. Then I read the book and discovered it's a love story. The vampire is incidental to the whole love story. Reading and understanding the love story behind Dracula was a beautiful surprise.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite destination?
Leyva: The region between Arizona, Utah, Colorado—all that landscape there. I call it the sacred lands of the United States—all those rock formations. Not the Grand Canyon, but it's close to the Grand Canyon. There's a swath of land—Monument Valley. That part of the planet is very special to me.
ENGenuity: What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?
Leyva: I love to prove people wrong. I love to do things that other people have told me could not be done either technically or bureaucratically. I love to take on challenges and know that yes, it can be done.
I also love to facilitate people shining—helping other people to acquire the tools, the support, and the money that they need to become the best they can. It's extremely rewarding to see smart people with money being well used—seeing them and their students shine.
ENGenuity: What keeps you up at night?
Leyva: I worry a lot about things with my job; they differ every day. I wake up most nights thinking of the problems that I must face the next day, the next week, or the next month.
ENGenuity: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Leyva: What wakes me up is the fight. I always have something that I'm trying to achieve—to prove somebody wrong, to do something that has never been done, to upset the system and do something different.
Dr. Leyva was previously highlighted in the Winter 2003 edition of the Caltech EAS alumni newsletter. Read that profile here.