Vladislav Kopman knew he had found a home as soon as he saw professor Vikram Kapila’s mechatronics lab during a tour of NYU-Poly. “I had always been interested in taking things apart to see how they worked, and putting them back together,” says Kopman. “So this was like a playground to me, full of fascinating toys.”

Kopman, who hails from Odessa, Ukraine, spoke no English when he immigrated with his parents and attended public school in Brooklyn. As he learned the language, he began to excel. During his junior year at NYU-Poly, Kopman met Maurizio Porfiri, then a relatively new professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who was focusing on underwater robotics. Working in Porfiri’s Dynamical Systems Laboratory, Kopman helped develop vehicles that could teach aquatic mammals in the New York Aquarium some of the playfulness and hunting skills that they should have learned in the wild. He later wrote a master’s thesis focused on modeling a robotic fish propelled by a realistic flapping tail that would allow scientists to study piscine behavior.

In 2010, Kopman won a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship—the first in the department’s history. Other accomplishments accumulated. He co-authored six articles in peer-reviewed journals—one of which was cited frequently and awarded “Best Paper in Robotics” at the 2009 ASME Dynamic Systems and Control Conference. He filed two U.S. patent applications as a co-inventor.

Kopman, who earned his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in May 2013, recently took a position at a Brooklyn company working on aerial vehicle technology for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. But his experiences as a teaching assistant make him ponder a future in academia, too. Either way, we’ll wait to see what ideas come to life next from his work inside the “playground.”

                                                                                                        —Mariellen Rich