Three UCF students have been awarded the highly competitive Astronaut Scholarships this year — raising the university’s student awards from the organization to 54 since 1989.
Each year, over 60 students across the country are awarded up to $15,000 each through the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF). ASF awarded its first seven scholarships, which were sponsored by the founding Mercury 7 astronauts, in 1986. Students must be nominated by a faculty member at their institution and must demonstrate considerable dedication to their field of study. In addition to the monetary award, scholars receive a paid trip to ASF’s Innovators Weekend as well as the chance to connect with Astronaut Scholar alumni, the Foundation, and the astronauts themselves.
“We are extremely proud of the ASF Scholars selected this year,” says Morgan Bauer, director of the Office of Prestigious Awards. “These students are the future leaders in their respective STEM fields.”
All three of UCF’s scholarship recipients are part of the Burnett Honors College, and are either in the process of completing, or have completed, an Honors Undergraduate Thesis (HUT). Read below to learn more about their research and what they hope to achieve in college and beyond.
For Angela Shar, the Astronaut Scholarship provided a renewed sense of purpose in her work and the opportunity to help others who are still in the early stages of their research journeys. This is Shar’s second time receiving this award. She also received the Goldwater Scholarship last year, an award that recognizes undergraduate students who study science, engineering, or mathematics and show an impressive commitment to research.
“It definitely has a special place in my heart when others are eager to get into research, because I’ve been there myself,” she says. “It’s the best feeling to tell them ‘Yes, you will get there’ and ‘Yes, your research matters.’”
Shar will graduate from UCF with her bachelor’s in biomedical sciences in Fall 2022. She dreams of one day achieving a translational research project — one in which research begins in the lab and progresses into in vitro and in vivo experiments, then into human clinical trials, eventually culminating in a feasible treatment for patients. Day-to-day, Shar intends to practice as a rheumatologist while running her own academic research lab and teaching medical students. Shar attributes much of her success in research to the guidance of her mentors, including her principal investigator (PI) and research mentor, Mehdi Razavi, assistant professor of medicine, materials science and engineering, and biionix.
“A patent, a publication, an honors thesis, and three conferences later, I don’t feel that I would be where I am today without the steadfast support of all my mentors,” she says.
Biomedical sciences major Sanjeev Gurshaney is proof that persistence breeds success. After submitting an unsuccessful application for the Astronaut Scholarship last year, he resolved to continue demonstrating diligence in both research and academics. The results of his hard work are clearly recognizable: Gurshaney was awarded both the Astronaut Scholarship and the Goldwater Scholarship this past year. Along with expressing appreciation for the Office of Prestigious Awards and Tyler Fisher ’02 ’03, Gurshaney also thanks his PI, Assistant Professor of Medicine Hung Nguyen, who has served as his research mentor for the past three years.
Gurshaney’s research topic is an incredibly timely one. Clinicians noticed early in the COVID-19 pandemic that patients with metabolic diseases were more likely to suffer severe symptoms of COVID, but the exact reason for this was unknown. Thus, Gurshaney began researching the relationship between cellular metabolism and immune dysfunction in severe COVID-19 cases. When his lab could no longer access patient samples due to biosafety regulations during the pandemic, he transitioned to performing data mining on publicly available genomic datasets to investigate trends regarding metabolism. Eventually, Gurshaney compiled his findings into an author manuscript which has been submitted for publication and uploaded to bioRxviv, an open-access preprint server. His dream is to pursue a dual M.D./Ph.D. program and work in a lab where he can make discoveries that translate directly to patients.
Catherine Millwater first learned about this scholarship before her undergraduate career even began. During a tour at UCF, she spotted the names of past winners on the Acclaimed Knights Wall in the Student Union. That day, Millwater made it her goal to earn the Astronaut Scholarship. With the help of her research mentor, Pegasus Professor of Physics Joe Harrington, and several other UCF faculty and staff members, she achieved this goal.
Millwater’s HUT explores the bearing capacity of lunar regolith, the layer of debris covering the moon’s surface. Her research allows her to develop coding, math and electrical engineering skills to gain real-world experience that complements her major in physics. She says she hopes to eventually present her research at a planetary science conference and plans to earn her Ph.D. in planetary geophysics. Ultimately, she would like to build rovers, help plan space missions, or be an astronaut.
For students interested in the Astronaut Scholarship, Millwater’s advice is simple: “If you’re reading this and thinking about applying for this scholarship, do it. If you want to apply but are afraid of not getting selected, do it anyway.”
Students interested in this award or other prestigious awards are encouraged to reach out to the Office of Prestigious Awards at [email protected].