By: Diana Lee
Hyeonseung “Shawn” Lee developed resilience at a young age. Born in the urban and fast-paced Gangnam district of Seoul, South Korea, he was shocked when at age 10, Lee and his family moved to the slower pace of Austin, Texas. While leaving his hometown for another country and culture was difficult, he says it gave him a sense of “grit.”
He adds, “It’s also given me this awesome dual identity: one as Korean and the other as an Austinite, and a Texan.”
One of our outstanding seniors from the 2021 class, Lee appreciates that he has remained close to his family and the city’s “unique lifestyle,” including Tex-Mex food. He initially didn’t envision himself attending college so close to home, having overlooked the UT Austin campus that he passed by so frequently; it wasn’t until he enrolled at UT that he fully realized the range of what it has to offer, including community, research and career opportunities.
Lee will be working after graduation as an engineer at Blue Origin, a rocket and a spacecraft company with the mission of building a road to space (and where he was an intern in the spring of 2020). The sum of his academic, extracurricular and professional experiences — including learning about Korean American astronaut Jonny Kim while interning at Blue Origin — influenced his ultimate goal: to become an astronaut himself.
As a computational engineering major, Lee studies how to implement computational methods and big data to model real-life scenarios and make predictions. He hopes to increase safety and accessibility in human space flight and space habitation, and to prevent tragic accidents such as the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters.
By joining the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Team (UAV) at UT Austin his freshman year, he made friends and mentors and solidified his passions and goals; the next year, he became program manager and captain, building not only planes but also the great teams behind them. Each year, UAV Austin builds a semi-autonomous aircraft to compete in the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s Student Unmanned Aerial Systems Competition.
Lee strives to excel in everything he does. However, during his sophomore year, he realized that he was “spreading himself too thin” with his coursework and extracurricular involvement. He was seeing everything as a priority and taking on too many tasks. This prompted him to prioritize his mental health and be mindful of his resources and energy. He changed his approach to success by focusing on smaller goals at a time in order to do a better job.
He applied this philosophy when he worked as an intern at Blue Origin, taking a semester-long break from UT in January 2020. He then became an intern at Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company, in the summer. He returned to his studies in September 2020, half a year after the COVID-19 pandemic had begun. He had moved back in with his parents during the pandemic. With one hybrid class and the rest online, he found his new learning experience “overwhelming,” particularly missing friends and campus life. But he soon realized that he was not the only one going through challenges — everyone was experiencing the pandemic, which put things in perspective.
Lee has served as CEO and director of operations for Texas Rocket Engineering Lab (TREL), an interdisciplinary research lab developing the first collegiate liquid bipropellant rocket to reach the Kármán line, the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space; a member of the Leadership, Undergraduate, Networking and Recruitment (LUNAR) Council in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics; and as an undergraduate peer adviser, helping guide freshmen and make them feel at home, from providing coursework information to offering suggestions on cool things to do in Austin.
As a leader, Lee says, his goal is to foster an environment where people are learning not only technical skills but also “soft skills,” such as communication, empathy and leadership, so his fellow students are set up to “do amazing things after they graduate.”
“I want to make sure that teams are prioritizing culture, the passion of everyone in the team and diversity as much as how to build really cool machines and write the proper codes for the software,” he says. “It’s not just robots and machines and codes. It’s incorporating everything that we know in life and trying to improve on what we’re currently doing.”
He is grateful for the assistance he received from academic adviser Sarah Kitten, who informed him of opportunities when he first enrolled at UT, and from TREL founder and former director Leon Vanstone, who interviewed Lee for his leadership position and served as a mentor.
His advice for students: “Don’t be afraid of unexpected opportunities. I think it’s comfortable to fall back to what you’ve planned, but it’s difficult to find out what’s out there — new things that you might fall in love with. Don’t lose a sense of your passion, but make sure that you’re not overlooking awesome opportunities, especially at this awesome institution. Have fun and make great human connections along the way.”