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Top UC Davis graduate headed to space industry

June 10, 2014

Woman staring through an optical device looking up at the camera, with various devices on the table

Ashley Coates, the 2014 UC Davis University Medalist, was an intern in Professor Steve Robinson's lab, where she helped design the optics for a helmet-based virtual testing device. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis photo)

Out of this world is one way to describe the top graduating senior at the University of California, Davis. 

After a visit to the Kennedy Space Center when she was in high school, Ashley Coates of Hollister, California, set her sights on a career in the space industry. At UC Davis, she has excelled in her studies of aerospace science and mechanical engineering and been mentored by a former astronaut. And her experiences included helping to build a virtual-reality headset, reverse engineer a robotic arm and design an airplane.

“I’ve always wanted to be the person who sends other people into space,” she said.

Coates is the 2014 recipient of the University Medal for excellence in undergraduate studies, outstanding community service and the promise of future scholarship and contributions to society.

When she receives the award at her commencement on Sunday, she’ll join an elite class of doctors, engineers, professors and others whose work ranges from seeking a cure for cancer to helping the poor in developing countries. 

Coates achieved a cumulative grade point average of 4.0 as she earned a bachelor's degree with a double major in aerospace science and engineering and mechanical engineering.

Mentored by former astronaut

Stephen Robinson, a retired NASA astronaut and professor at UC Davis, mentored Coates. “Ashley Coates is the type of student who will always represent the best of UC Davis, in both technical achievement and community service, and will be a wonderful role model for following generations of Aggies,” he wrote in support of her recognition.

Among Coates’ stellar experiences at UC Davis has been volunteering with the Center for Human/Robotics/Vehicle Integration and Performance. Directed by Robinson, the center conducts research to keep humans alive in extreme and highly hazardous environments, such as spaceflight, aircraft emergencies and robotic surgery.

In the center’s lab, Coates helped disassemble and study the workings of a robotic arm from NASA and create a helmet-mounted, virtual-reality system for use in the design of cockpits. For a senior team project to design a 75-passenger plane, she designed the landing gear and performed the cost analysis.

Ahead: NASA and Stanford University

Coates will work at NASA’s Johnson Space Center this summer. In the fall, she will begin studies at Stanford University, which named her a graduate fellow and provided a three-year award valued at $240,000.

She plans to focus on computational fluid dynamics — the use of numerical methods and algorithms to analyze and solve problems that involve fluid (think air) flows — as she pursues degrees in aeronautics and astronautics.  

Coates hopes to work in the space industry, including NASA, and then as a university professor.

Encouraging other girls

Even now, Coates speaks at schools to encourage girls to consider opportunities in math, science and engineering. “I know what it is like to be the one girl in the class, and I think I can use that experience to encourage others to follow their dream even if it isn't the norm,” she said. “There are opportunities out there for all of them to get involved in cool things that interest them.”

Coates grew up steeped in Aggie traditions. Her father, Bill, earned two degrees at UC Davis and was a UC Cooperative Extension farm adviser. Her brother Ryan graduated from UC Davis in 2009, and her twin, Darren, will graduate in June. 

During her studies at UC Davis, Coates played piccolo and flute in the Cal Aggie Marching Band-uh!; served as a peer adviser; and, as a chancellor’s ambassador, represented students at various events.   

Coates will be presented with the medalist’s plaque and a $2,000 honorarium at the College of Engineering commencement at 3 p.m. Sunday in the Pavilion on campus.

The ceremony will be the last of UC Davis’ spring commencements. The university estimates that it will confer about 8,710 degrees for the 2013-14 academic year.

About UC Davis

UC Davis is a global community of individuals united to better humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the California state capital, UC Davis has more than 34,000 students, and the full-time equivalent of 4,100 faculty and other academics and 17,400 staff. The campus has an annual research budget of over $750 million, a comprehensive health system and about two dozen specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and 99 undergraduate majors in four colleges and six professional schools.

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