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Mission Toothbrush

Operation Space members assemble a rocket at Vanderbilt University. Photo from Joshua Farahzad

Former Ward Melville High School graduates are finding out how valuable past connections are while they keep their eyes on the sky.

Joshua Farahzad and Hugh Ferguson graduating from Ward Melville in 2017. Photo from Joshua Farahzad

When Joshua Farahzad, a 2017 Ward Melville graduate, decided to give building a rocket a try, he began to solicit college and graduate students from around the U.S. and Canada for his team, which he called Operation Space. Along the way, fellow 2017 Ward Melville grads Hugh Ferguson and Brandon Cea joined the mission.

Farahzad, who is currently a sophomore at Duke University majoring in electrical engineering and economics, led a group of 40 college and graduate students in building two hypersonic rockets last summer. While many colleges have groups of students trying to do the same, Farahzad set out to assemble a group from various universities by emailing every college in the U.S. and Canada to work on a rocket remotely, learning the art of collaboration along the way.

After receiving resumes from fellow rocket enthusiasts, he and Operation Space team members remotely designed and built a rocket that is capable of reaching Mach 6-plus speeds, which is six times the speed of sound. Farahzad said the group is planning its first launch in late May at Spaceport America in New Mexico, and the goal is to break the student altitude record of 330,000 feet to reach the Kármán line, recognized as the border between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.

Farahzad said Operation Space, in a way, took root in Ward Melville when he was in teacher Bob Spira’s Advanced Placement physics class during his junior year. Spira showed the class “October Sky,” a movie about students who try to build rockets. As a part of the final project, the students built one themselves.

“I remember really, really loving that,” he said. “I never did it before.”

Farahzad said he knew he wanted to include Ferguson, who while in high school started the nonprofit Mission Toothbrush with him. The group, which is still run by Ward Melville students, collects oral care products for those in need. Later into the rocket project, during a trip home Farahzad said he was talking to Cea, and he realized how valuable his friend, who is a West Point cadet, would be to the plan.

The Duke student said after planning remotely with other Operation Space members, they managed to prefabricate electronics at Rutgers University in New Jersey and structures at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, which is also where the students finally met in the summer of 2018.

“We never met each other before,” Farahzad said. “We had been working on it for less than two months. We tried to piece it all together at Vanderbilt over a course of week. Some things worked, some things didn’t work.”

Farazad said the group decided to build two rockets in case one got damaged. The rockets were shipped to Princeton University in New Jersey where they will be housed until take off.

Ferguson said he was happy when Farahzad, one of the first people he met when he moved to the Three Village school district, approached him about the project. He said their experience with Mission Toothbrush provided a solid foundation to work on future projects.

Ferguson said they learned that when you have an idea you just have to jump in, and it’s important for young people to follow their interests no matter what their personality or skill set.

Brandon Cea and Joshua Farahzad. Photo from Joshua Farahzad

“It has taught me that do things you’ll be the most interested in and most fulfilled in, and because of that, I think you’ll do your best work, and it will be the best for your personal growth as well as be the best for the cause,” Ferguson said.

Now a sophomore at Northeastern University studying computer science and economics, Ferguson has helped Farahzad with recruiting, creating a business plan, and working on the web side of things. He said the project, and how quickly the rocket was built, reminds him of hackathons where students create an app or computer program in 24 to 48 hours. He added having a focused idea and proper planning is the key, and he also realizes how important a network is when it comes to working on a project of this size.

“Your network is much bigger than you think, probably better than you think,” he said. “If you really put the effort in, I think you know a lot more people than you think you do or who can help you, at least.”

As for the connection with Cea, Farahzad learned that his former classmate founded the West Point Space Engineering and Applied Research Program, an interdisciplinary team focused on enabling the next generation of space-capable leaders. Cea says for their projects the team can source BKNO3, an explosive compound, which cannot be procured or tested by civilian universities. Farahzad said Cea partnering with Operation Space allows them to get the explosive material they need for their rocket.

The West Point cadet, who describes Farahzad as inspirational, is happy to be working with his fellow classmate and is looking forward to the launch day.

“While it would be the crowning achievement of most students, it’s just the first step of an exciting partnership between a couple of Ward Melville alumni,” he said. “The future lies in space, and the best shot we have is through the building of the civilian-military relations. I don’t know what problems we’ll want to tackle next, but we can be content in the fact that it hopefully won’t be rocket science, and if it is, we already know how that’s going to go.”

Farahzad is looking forward to launch day too and said while a date has not  been scheduled yet, the second rocket will be launched at a later date.

“I’m just happy to get to launch and see this whole thing, which feels very abstract, become real,” he said. “As long as everyone is safe, whatever happens after we hit the button will be a bonus.”

For more information about Operation Space, visit operationspace.org.

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Kelsey Ge, front left, and Jay Sangwan, front right, are joined by volunteers as they drop off dental hygiene products collected by Mission Toothbrush at Long Island Cares. Photo from Mission Toothbrush

Some Ward Melville High School students are doing their part to make the world a better place, one toothbrush at a time.

On Sept. 16, volunteers from Mission Toothbrush, a nonprofit dedicated to collecting oral hygiene products for those in need, will be holding a drive at Stop & Shop in South Setauket. In addition to toothbrushes, the volunteers collect toothpaste, dental floss and mouthwash that they distribute to nearby churches, soup kitchens and homeless shelters, including St. James R.C. Church in Setauket, Long Island Cares in Hauppauge and Pax Christi Hospitality Center in Port Jefferson.

Kelsey Ge, left, and Jay Sangwan, right, with former president Ethan Li, center, drop off dental hygiene products collected by Mission Toothbrush at Pax Christi. Photo from Mission Toothbrush

“Hygiene products — dental hygiene products in particular — can prevent a range of diseases that take place within the mouth and the entire body,” said sophomore Neil Mehta, director of outreach for the organization.

Junior Jay Sangwan, co-president, said there are added benefits to being able to keep on top of dental hygiene.

“Having a healthier smile is obviously good for self-esteem and confidence, which is extremely important, as we all know,” he said. “So, a big part of our mission is that we want to share a smile with those who are less fortunate allowing them to be more confident in themselves and have higher self-esteem.”

Co-president Kelsey Ge, a junior at Ward Melville, said those who run soup kitchens and homeless shelters have told Mission Toothbrush representatives they receive a lot of food and clothing, but not enough hygiene products.

“The good thing about [dental hygiene products] is that they are nonperishables,” she said. “So, they’re very easy to collect and store. I think in general it’s a great way for people to contribute in a unique way.”

The organization was founded in November 2015 by Josh Farazhad and Hugh Ferguson, who both graduated from Ward Melville High School in 2017. Students Ethan Li, Ge and Sangwan then stepped in as co-presidents, and after Li’s graduation in June, Ge and Sangwan continued the tradition with Mehta; Katherine Liu, director of finance; and Preeti Kota, director of operations.

Mission Toothbrush has collected $40,000 worth of dental items and monetary donations since its inception, according to Ge. The organization estimated the products have included 5,000 toothbrushes, 8,000 ounces of toothpaste, 95,000 milliliters of mouthwash and 30,000 yards of dental floss.

Jay Sangwan and Kelsey Ge drop off dental hygiene products collected by Mission Toothbrush at Pax Christi. Photo from Mission Toothbrush

The students said volunteering is not limited to those in high school, and from time to time, middle schoolers have helped out. Each drive averages 10 volunteers from the school district lending a hand.

The group will soon solicit other hygiene products including diapers and feminine hygiene products that those donating may overlook during community outreach drives, and the board of directors also wants to create branches in other areas in the future.

“Being able to open some sort of new branches outside of our local area is important,” Ge said. “Because of our focus on local community, it’s a really great way to concentrate on the needs directly around us, but one of the limitations is we really can’t reach the wide population who truly need these supplies.”

Sangwan said he hopes expanding will help more high school students interact with others in their areas. “A big part of this was not only to help the community and to raise awareness, but also it was just a really good life skill, we thought, for high school students to have these interactions,” he said.

Mission Toothbrush’s drive will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Sept. 16 at Stop & Shop located at 260 Pond Path. For more information about Mission Toothbrush and future community drives, visit www.missiontoothbrush.org.