Jacob: Tinkerer, Entrepreneur, and Saltwater Aquarium Aficionado

Jacob is a student from the United States who attended the Summer STEM Institute (SSI). Jacob loves building, and you can always find him working on new projects in his garage, whether it be rocket fuel, 3D printer motion systems, or saltwater aquariums. In addition to building, Jacob is passionate about giving back to his community and has raised over $100,000 (providing over 875,000 meals) to his local food bank. For his work, he was named a Citizen Kid by Disney and was featured as a guest on Good Morning America. You can learn more about Jacob’s community service work, engineering projects, and all the other exciting things he has been up to in the interview below, and you can also visit his personal website here

How did you first become interested in science or research? 

I've always been interested in science and exploration, but in eighth grade, I had the opportunity to participate in a science fair at a statewide level. That’s when science really became interesting and exciting because I realized I could go somewhere with it. At the time, my friend and I did a lot of model rocketry, so we worked on a project together and the goal was to just have fun with it. However, we ended up making a viable rocket fuel that is less expensive than anything commercially available, which was really exciting. The rocket fuel project ended up being a nice stepping stone into other projects I worked on in the future, and from there, I was able to launch into more complex fields. 

What areas of science or technology are you most interested in? 

There are so many things I’m interested in. One of my biggest issues right now is just trying to decide which interests to pursue and which projects to spend the most time on. It’s been really fun juggling all these subjects I'm interested in, from chemistry to marine biology. Of course, I also like engineering and building things. 

What’s an engineering innovation you’re really excited about? 

I’m currently building electric vehicles, so I’m really interested in lithium-ion batteries. An innovation I’m really excited about is the race between pouch cells and 18650 cell batteries. For example, we can look at Tesla and other big EV makers who are all using 18650 cell batteries. They’re steel-encased. They’re heavy. They’re durable, but they’re bulky. On the other hand, companies like GM are coming out with new vehicles that use pouch batteries, which are the same batteries we use on our phones. These are much better from a space perspective. 

Can you tell us a bit more about the electric vehicle projects you’re working on? 

I have a few electric vehicle projects going on right now. The biggest one is my electric hydrofoil, which is essentially a very short, very sturdy surfboard I’m building that rides on foil. It has a three-foot tall mast that sits on an underwater wing that creates a hydrofoil effect. You can move because there’s very little resistance since you’re above the water. Because the board itself generates lift, it only takes about 300 watts to stay out of the water. This means that you can go for very long on low power. However, because I don’t want to go slowly, we put a 10-kilowatt motor in it. Our goal is to hit 45 miles an hour. So far, I’ve been working with my CNC machine on it, shaping the board, working on the motor, and making custom versions. 

My other project is an electric skateboard. I made the electric skateboard entirely from scratch, but I didn’t feel safe enough on it because it’s a skateboard and I wanted to move faster than 30 miles an hour. Now, we’re converting it to more of a sit-down thing, so it’s becoming closer and closer to a very small electric car. 

Outside of building, you’re also involved in many community projects. Could you tell us about the community work you’ve done? 

I do a lot of work at the food bank in Santa Barbara. I run JOINJACOB, a triathlon fundraising team. To date, we have raised just over $100,000, which has provided over 875,000 meals for Santa Barbara County. This year, our goal is to hit a million meals. Also, my brother and I run a program called Saturday Family Day, where we bring families and their kids together and provide them with volunteer opportunities. This saves the food bank time and money and enables them to push out a large volume of food on a monthly basis. 

Outside of all the activities you just described, what do you enjoy doing in your free time? 

I love saltwater aquariums with a passion. I maintain aquariums filled with fish and coral and also build systems to automate the maintenance. I designed my own aquarium controllers and built software to run the aquariums. It’s cool to create an ecosystem in my house, and I love marine biology as well. Of course, I also love running and triathlons, and I enjoy free diving, scuba diving, and other water sports. I absolutely love the outdoors, so anything outdoors is a lot of fun for me. 

What did you work on over the summer at SSI? 

I worked on a project I call “Nowcasting.” Our goal was to collect weather data and images from a geostationary satellite. I installed a satellite disk on my roof to receive data and images of the earth that pertain to weather, including cloud patterns and formations. Then, I created a neural network that processes this information and makes weather predictions. This is useful for weather forecasting, prediction, and a whole bunch of other things. A lot of people who are living off the grid or living in areas without internet connection can use this method to potentially see storms and weather events before they’re coming with incredible accuracy and will have the opportunity to prepare for them. The system is also relatively inexpensive. Currently, my mentor and I are planning to write a paper on it and publish it, which is really exciting. 

What was the most valuable lesson or skill you learned from SSI? 

To start, I became a lot better at time management with SSI. SSI really helped me learn how to set deadlines and manage my time while working towards a goal. Also, I learned so much from the Masterclass speakers. I even took notes on every single talk. I had the opportunity to learn from speakers who are in a lot of really complex fields, and I got to hear directly what it’s like to be involved in those fields and get an insider’s perspective on it. Also, I particularly enjoyed a speaker’s Masterclass on her journey towards the chemistry olympiad. I thought it was really interesting because it was something I have always wanted to do. I reached out afterward with a few questions, and she answered them beautifully. It was amazing talking to someone who was a finalist in the chemistry olympiad and having an open dialogue with her about her experiences. Having the opportunity to talk with her, and others like her, made SSI so special. 

What have you been up to after SSI? Are there any projects or research you’ve been working on that you’re excited about? 

There’s always projects I want to implement and work on. In addition to all the projects I mentioned earlier, I also have a CNC machine right now. It’s an ever-evolving project, and it’s been around nine months since we started working on it. There’s always things to work on, like adding a fourth axis, in which you have to rewrite the firmware, which takes forever. Also, I’m working on a coil gun right now, and I’m also building my own server to do all this machine learning stuff on. I’m trying to complete current projects before moving on to the next thing - meaning four projects instead of forty!