AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq --
What does an internship at the NASA Langley Research Center, the vice president of a Google Cloud Premier Partner company, and a researcher at the WorldPop Project, all have in common?
The answer is Airman 1st Class Nirav Nikunj Patel, 801st Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron guidance and control avionics specialist deployed with the 1st Expeditionary Rescue Group at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, and a geographically separated unit of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing in Southwest Asia.
Patel unknowingly started working toward this impressive resume since he was a young boy.
“When I visited India when I was young, my parents and grandparents would always take me around to the Akhand Jyot Foundation to show me all the good work that was being done,” Patel said. “It motivated me to pursue a career that would have international impact.”
Patel’s grandparents, on his father’s side, started the Akhand Jyot Foundation, a non-profit in 1980 which helps provide basic services to people living in the slum areas. The foundation has helped deliver supplies from the World Health Organization, including polio vaccinations and by helping provide courses to assist women living in the area have greater social mobility.
“My travels to India and my work with my grandparents’ foundation has raised me to internally refuse the outcome that people have to continually die of preventable diseases when we have the tools and treatments that just need to be applied more intelligently,” said Patel.
One of the tools he learned about is geography, and how it is being used to pinpoint where things, like vaccines, would have the greatest effect.
“I learned that geography as a discipline was much deeper than just memorizing states and capitals,” Patel said.
In 2017, he earned his PhD in Earth Systems and Geoinformation Sciences from George Mason University, on top of his Masters in Science in Geography, and two Bachelors of Arts in Geography and Philosophy from the University of Florida.
Patel, filled with a yearning to learn more and to create world changing innovations, decided that working with the Department of Defense would be his best option.
“I joined the military because I want to work on ground breaking technologies that could change the course of history,” said Patel. “I considered going active duty officer while I was finishing my PhD, but after talking to my NASA mentor, Dr. Bruce Doddridge, and having him connect me to a former Air Force and NASA pilot, Col. Andrew Roberts, I decided to enlist in the California Air National Guard instead.”
Patel, with guidance from his mentors, was told that some enlisted careers would give him a better opportunity to manually apply aerospace engineering, and would better help him work toward some of his future goals. By joining the Guard, he would be able to finish his PhD and continue to work at his civilian job.
“The distinction between enlisted and officer didn’t matter as much as what knowledge I was seeking,” Patel said. “Learning avionics in the Air Force is possibly the best bang for your buck for electrical engineering and aerospace engineering technician level training.”
Besides being able to physically work on aircraft and having the willingness to serve, Patel enjoys being an integral part of the mission at the 129th Rescue Wing in Moffett Air National Guard Base, California.
“I love the mission that I’m part of in search and rescue,” said Patel. “And the equipment I get to work on are pretty impressive pieces of equipment. I also enjoy the people and the network that I’ve built of people working in many different career fields.”
Patel said that he also enjoys the mentorship and the experience he is getting while he helps save lives.
Being fairly new to the Air Force, he is still learning about his career and is thankful for his shop who help him fix his mistakes.
“I’m very lucky to have a very experienced Master Sgt. Gomez as my shop chief and other staff sergeants within my shop that seem to have endless amounts of patience for my mistakes,” Patel said.
In the meantime, Patel also wants to continue doing population mapping research for WorldPop, and possibly start teaching at a local university in the San Francisco Bay Area. He also wants to work on the next iteration of the Global Positioning System, something the DoD and NASA are working on.
Patel is currently waiting for an opportunity to join the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental this fall, which is right across the flightline from his home unit.
“The pursuit of knowledge motivates me,” said Patel. “Specifically in pursuing epistemic thought, or how do we know we know something, and understanding ontology, or the nature of our existence and reality. I want to discover new things, solve universal problems, and help to alleviate as much suffering as I can along the way.”