Two UCF students have been awarded the highly competitive Astronaut Scholarships this year — raising the university’s student awards from the organization to 51 since 1989.

The honor is awarded by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation to STEM students who are conducting research that will advance their respective fields — which are not limited to the aerospace industry. This year, 60 junior and senior undergraduate students from 44 colleges across the United States will receive up to almost $900,000. The honorees will be recognized during ASF’s Innovators Gala Aug. 14 at the Hilton Orlando.

“Our 2021 Astronaut Scholarship award program reflects our commitment to the best and brightest minds in the fields of STEM,” says Caroline Schumacher, president and CEO of ASF. “The challenges of the past year were met head on and managed with great success. We are so honored to support, fuel and inspire all of our 2021 Astronaut Scholars in the process of leadership in science and technology.”

Future Astrobiologist for NASA

While most people tend to avoid subjects they consider the most difficult in school, physics student Riley Havel says she selected her major because she wanted a challenge that would keep her busy throughout college. The Burnett Honors Scholar, who also stays busy through several campus involvements, eventually found her focus in planetary science and geoscience through her studies and guidance from faculty members.

For the past three years she’s also worked in UCF Assistant Professor Christopher Bennett’s Astrochem Lab, where she says she’s had flexible opportunities to explore various interests that have solidified her interest in becoming an astrobiologist for NASA.

“I think now is a good time to become an astrobiologist because there’s lots of current missions between NASA and some of the other international space agencies that are really focused on detecting life on other planets or detecting evidence of past life on other planets,” she says. “This is something a lot of people think about, but specifically astrobiologists really get to spend their whole career trying to figure out.”

Last summer she was even able to complete an internship in an astrobiology analytical laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. And now her recent Astronaut Scholarship will help her continue her path to become a full-time researcher.

“Receiving this means that I am more capable than I think I am sometimes,” Havel says. “I know in STEM we often face imposter syndrome, and it might hold us back at times, but receiving the astronaut scholar has just made me a lot more ambitious and think that my career goals aren’t as lofty as I once thought — that I can do it.”

While at UCF, Havel has served as a team leader for the first-year symposium class at the Burnett Honors College, tutor for student athletes, an ambassador for the Student Undergraduate Research Council, and leadership roles with the Society of Physics Students and Women in Physics Society. She credits student organizations and being proactive with finding academic and professional opportunities for her success.

“I think one of main reasons I think I’ve been able to stick with physics and really figure out what I wanted to do was because I spent a lot of time with the Society of Physics Students,” she says. “It’s really a group of people that all care about physics, math and helping each other out.

Build relationships with people in your courses and with upperclassmen because they’ve been through exactly what you’re going through and have the best insight on your studies, research and internships.”

Future Medical Researcher

Burnett Honors Scholar Angela Shar’s interest in research began in sixth grade with a science fair and has evolved into a potential future career for the biomedical sciences and criminal justice double major. With a physician as a mother, Shar was drawn to medicine early. While she was completing her honors undergraduate thesis she filed a patent on her research and became interested in legal issues, which she says led her to her second major as a way to further balance her studies.

“Currently I’m doing research on therapies or drugs for bone disorders and medical issues like that,” she says. “I want to pursue my M.D. Ph.D. in biomaterials and tissue engineering. I’ve always really wanted to pursue medicine clinically, but I’ve always wanted to incorporate my passion for research at the same time. And really when it comes down to it, advancing medicine is impossible without innovative research pushing it along.”

Shar was also recently awarded the Burnett Honors College’s Alvin Y. Wang Undergraduate Research Scholarship, UCF’s Distinguished Undergraduate Researcher Award and a Judges’ Choice Award at UCF’s 2021 Student Scholar Symposium. This fall she will present her research at the Southern Biomedical Engineering Conference in New Orleans.

“I was really surprised when I got the Astronaut Scholarship because it’s just a huge achievement, but it’s very much a scholarship for students that are really passionate about research in general,” she says. “I think the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation recognized my passion toward medicine and my extensive research background. This honor is a really great opportunity for building networking opportunities to connect with others.”

She co-founded UCF’s chapter of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers, a national student organization that is dedicated to the advancement of Asian heritage individuals’ education and employment so that they can achieve their full potential.

“Research is really all about being determined,” she says. “Things don’t always work out — I’ve definitely had a lot of trials and errors — but I think it’s just a matter of picking yourself up, reading more literature and trying a different approach to get through it. For anyone wanting to get started with research you’re going to have a lot of failures, but the success and chance to make a difference is worth it.”