Spencer Sumanik graduated from Porter Creek Secondary in 2009 and is now studying to be an aerospace engineer in Ottawa.
I am meeting Spencer at his parents’ home on the Hot Spring’s Road. He's home for the holidays, ”I am doing well and happy to be home!” he says. His parents moved to this beautiful open property along the Takhini River only a few years ago, having moved from the property on the Mayo Road where Spencer grew up. The move included the horses and the dogs and, now, it is very much his home. I know Spencer as a friend of my son since they both went to Hidden Valley Elementary School in Whitehorse. He still looks the same as I remember him, although taller for sure. He tells me that his grandmother will invariably say with every visit: “Spencer, you are taller again.”
We start the interview off with his current studies, which are very exciting. He is in the second, and last year, of a Master's degree in Aerospace Engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa. Aerospace Engineering, he says, is about the study of building objects that move through fluids like air but it can also be water. Mostly he studies rockets but it can also be about cars.
His thesis is about rocket fins and plasma actuators. (I have no idea what this means, but will let Spencer explain.)
“By altering the speed of air as it is going over the fin through space, you can control the fin to increase or decrease the amount of spin,” Spencer explains. He continues that when he went to Fairbanks, Poker Flats Research Range, which is part of the university of Alaska Fairbanks geophysical institute. He learned there that spin control systems can be a major issue and that the fin often fails in rocket testing. Spencer says, ”Another major issue is that you don’t want the fin to catch fire. We are talking zero tolerance for errors by the time we send people into space with those rockets.” After mainly working behind the computer, in March, Spencer get to test his thesis out with a group of six rocket builders who are working on a rocket that will go up two km.
Initially, Spencer's Christmas visit was to be longer, but his professor wants him back to write a publication about his research for a conference in China.
How did he get into all this fascinating stuff? He and a childhood friend got their bachelor's degrees in Mechanical Engineering at UBC Okanagan. After that, both of them moved to Ottawa to continue their studies, each in their own preferred field. They rented a room in Ottawa with another Yukoner. Spencer chose Carleton, as it felt more intimate, like a big small town, like Whitehorse is a big small town.
“There are actually quite a lot of Yukoners in Ottawa," Spencer says. Studying takes up very much of my time, so it is hard to make new friends, and being from the Yukon, we already know each other. We support each other.” Just recently they were in a bar, the table happened to be full of Yukon friends and they happened to run into Sandy Silver (Premier of Yukon)
In his summers off, Spencer has worked for Highways and Public works. "They are very accommodating about hiring Yukon born and raised students,” Spencer said. Last summer, Spencer was a project manager. Also in the summers, Spencer rides his horses. Over the years, he has continued taking lessons in horse jumping and competed in horse shows in Alaska and Alberta. He has competed at the same level as the very best: Olympic riders. He very much enjoyed being with these top athletes. "They are just very nice, normal people, doing what they love,” he says.
I ask about swimming, “When, as an elementary school kid, you came to my house you were the first kid ever to swim right across Moose Skull Lake,” I remind him. Spencer excelled in swimming, After graduating in 2009, he took a year off to focus on the Canada Games in Charlottetown, where he competed in swimming with another Porter Creek Secondary graduate. For the rest of the year, he was making money to pay for future studies. He also travelled to Europe and, amidst his travels, he worked in a horse barn in Ireland for two months.
Future plans? “ I plan to graduate this May. I will start writing a lot of job applications, applying for jobs, probably in the United States: Houston, Alabama, California or Fairbanks. NASA has a lot of entry-level jobs. And I will talk to my professor about continuing to study for a possible PhD,” Spencer says.
What an actuating life!