Ross Award Recipient Built a Rocket Engine at Home, and Learned French During a Pandemic


Roy Ramirez testing rocket equipment in the Purdue propulsion lab
Roy Ramirez testing rocket equipment in the Purdue propulsion lab.

What Roy Ramirez believed would be a routine teleconference meeting with his academic advisor turned out to be one of the greatest surprises he’s ever had. “A couple of minutes into the meeting, faculty, friends and family from Costa Rica, the U.S. and France started to join our video call and I was speechless,” he said.

Roy Ramirez, bottom right, on a video teleconference receiving his surprise GA Ross award, with family, friends, and Purdue faculty and staff
Roy Ramirez, bottom right, on a video teleconference receiving his surprise GA Ross award, with family, friends and Purdue faculty and staff.

Ramirez is this year’s recipient of the G.A. Ross Award, which is presented annually to one outstanding male senior in honor of his contributions to Purdue University.

His academic advisor, Tyson McFall-Wankat, remembers when she first realized he was going to be a special student. He had said that he would be building a rocket engine over the summer in 2019, but she wrote it off as the usual grand plans that don’t materialize. But in the fall of that year, he thunked a metal combustion chamber on her desk and told of his success.

“He had designed, built, and tested a rocket In his backyard and he had the video to prove it. He called it the P5 and it was the first liquid-fueled rocket engine in Central America and the Caribbean Region,” Mcfall-Wankat wrote in her nomination.

“Even more astounding to me was that he hadn’t taken our propulsion course yet! Nor had he taken aerodynamics, or fluid mechanics. He had spent the last year reading textbooks and teaching himself the math and concepts he needed to make his goals possible.”

Roy Ramirez, right, with his father and grandfather
Roy Ramirez, right, with his father and grandfather, standing next to equipment used for the homemade rocket he launched from his parents' home in Costa Rica.

Ramirez has shown himself to make the most of limited resources. One of his goals in launching that rocket was to prove that someone could do it without a precision lab or thousands of dollars in investment. His ultimate success earned him airtime on Costa Rica TV networks. He documented the experience on his website.

He also showed his tenacity in the Global Engineering Alliance for Research & Education (GEARE) study abroad program. What was meant to be a semester in France the spring of 2020 turned into a whole year of cultural immersion due to a stolen passport and closed embassies right as the COVID-19 pandemic began. Not only did he use that time to study French language and culture, but he also interned at the French startup ThrustMe, while also brainstorming ideas for AREX, his own startup company.

“Right now, my startup AREX is very focused on Project Polaris, our international student program that is trying to develop a buoyant rover prototype based on a design for Saturn's moon Titan,” Ramirez says. “We have over 100 students from 29 different countries, and we hope to present our work in Paris at this year's International Astronautical Congress.”

Ramirez is also giving time to his home country as a new board member of the Costa Rica Aerospace Cluster. “I plan on working really hard to help them improve the aerospace industry in CR by finding local and international opportunities for the 38 companies represented.”

Roy Ramirez standing next to the entry sign at the 2019 International Astronautical Congress.
Roy Ramirez at the 70th annual International Astronautical Congress in 2019. He hopes to return with his company, AREX, later this year to present a prototype buoyant rover for use on one of Saturn's moons.

Ramirez will receive a medal, a certificate and a monetary award of $2,000. Ramirez’s name will be inscribed alongside all the previous winners on the permanent awards marker on the Purdue Engineering Mall. But in his heart, the award really goes to his family.

“After I left for the U.S., I only get to share with my family in person a few times a year. They have been part of my journey, have believed in me and encouraged me even when it meant burning their backyards with fire and chemicals,” he says. “From Isabella, my youngest little sister, bringing me some cookies to my lab late at night, to my grandpa being my lab assistant, all of them are a blessing. This award goes to them, and to God, who never let me give up.”

Read about other outstanding Purdue students graduating in the spring of 2022 in the Purdue Newsroom.

Publish date: April 14, 2022