The Senior Systems Engineer

Share This:



Spotlight on Hidden Physicists

The Senior Systems Engineer


Zain Abbas, Draper Laboratory, Inducted into Sigma Pi Sigma at the University of New Hampshire, 2015

As an immigrant from Pakistan, the United States felt like a new world to me, filled with diverse cultures. I landed on US soil in 2010. After a couple of years in high school, I spent several years at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) in Durham, where I devoted myself to studying physics and conducting research in space science. I discovered American football, college, and skyscrapers while enjoying the New Hampshire foliage. 

During my first summers at UNH, I did research on thermometry at low temperatures in a nuclear physics group, thanks to an undergraduate research award. During my senior year I worked on another summer project, this time in space science. I helped develop a time-of-flight mass-ion spectrometer for space-based spectroscopy. With each project, I enjoyed presenting my research at the UNH Undergraduate Research Conference.

I had a strong aptitude for physics courses and was inducted into Sigma Pi Sigma before graduating. I was also active in SPS. As president of our Society of Physics Students chapter, I focused on bringing the UNH physics community together and connecting undergraduate interests to faculty and university resources.

Motivated by unanswered questions in space science, I went on to pursue a graduate degree in physics, also at UNH. While there I had the privilege of analyzing data from NASA’s Compton Gamma Ray Observatory Mission Telescope (COMPTEL) to learn more about the neutrons produced when galactic cosmic rays collide with particles in Earth's atmosphere. My graduate thesis provided valuable insights into the flux of these "albedo neutrons" in Earth’s atmosphere, which is important in heliophysics and magnetospheric research.

While working on my thesis, Draper Laboratory, also known as the MIT Instrumentation Lab, offered me a job as a systems and test engineer. I still work there today.

I’ve worked on several R&D programs for industry and government clients, including the Office of Naval Research (ONR). For example, I've tested several inertial measurement units (IMUs), which are tools that play a critical role in navigation systems. Orbiting spacecraft and high-altitude missiles utilize IMUs to measure specific forces, angular rates, and orientation along their path. I've also helped develop a quantum photonics gate array, an important component for enabling quantum computing.

Because of my passion for space science, I worked on Dream Chaser—the first unmanned spaceplane designed to resupply the International Space Station. I was responsible for maintaining the data management tool that assisted my colleagues with data conversion issues. Additionally, I've supported several radiation-hardened efforts for Blue Origin, an aerospace manufacturing company developing space systems and reusable launch systems. I helped test microsystems under heavy ion radiation to measure the susceptibility of their electronic components.

I’m currently modeling radar simulations in Matlab. It’s fascinating to investigate radar performance under various conditions. The downside is that I can't use my cell phone at work due to the classified nature of the project! Working on US Department of Defense (DOD) projects comes with other challenges, too. For example, they have strict schedules and depend on critical funding that can be cut abruptly.

These challenges and experiences have taught me the importance of resilience, adaptability, and perseverance in the face of adversity. I have learned that true growth lies not only in success but also in the lessons you learn from failures. Never stop learning—this is the only pathway to growing your intellectual capabilities. Learn from history, focus on the present, and never let fear of failure stop you from moving forward in life. 



More from this Department

Spotlight on Hidden Physicists