Larry Bradley ’94 once discovered the most distant galaxy in the universe (at the time). UCF students Minh-Chau Le and Latifah Maasarani take pride in representing strong women in STEM.
And all three will be recognized for some of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s biggest achievements at the Innovators Gala in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 25.
Bradley has been selected as the recipient of this year’s Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence. The annual honor recognizes an Astronaut Scholar alum who has made a difference through his or her work and also embodies character, achievement and impact.
Le and Maasarani will be celebrated among 50 students from 36 universities as members of the 2018-19 Astronaut Scholar Class. UCF has witnessed 28 students receive scholarships from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation since 1986 when the first scholarships were funded by Mercury 7 astronauts.
When the first launch of the space shuttle occurred on April 12, 1981,Bradley and his family drove from their home in Orlando to camp roadside in Cape Canaveral and watch the historical moment. Among the spectators, a man had set up a large telescope and invited those around to peer into the skies.
“I remember seeing the rings of Saturn for the first time and Jupiter and its moons and a very detailed view of moon craters. I had seen those things in books but I didn’t know I could actually see the rings of Saturn with my own eyes,” Bradley says. “As a young kid, that somehow ignited a spark in me.”
Bradley, a Burnett Honors Scholar, who studied physics and mathematics at UCF, is now an astrophysicist and senior systems software engineer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, the science operations center for the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope.
“Neil Armstrong has always been a hero of mine so to receive an award named after him is just a huge, huge honor.”
In 2008, he used the Hubble Space Telescope to locate the most distant galaxy in the universe, dating back to within the first billion years. Although that discovery has since been superseded, he says the James Webb Space Telescope will provide the opportunity for even more detailed exploration when it launches in 2021.
While his discovery was one of the highlights of his career, he also points to this award as another meaningful moment.
“Neil Armstrong has always been a hero of mine so to receive an award named after him is just a huge, huge honor, and I am extremely humbled to win such a prestigious award,” Bradley says.
Bradley serves on the foundation’s board of directors and its scholarship committee. For the first time this year, he will act as a mentor and was coincidentally assigned to Maasarani.
“The astronaut scholarship is a lifelong support to its scholars,” he says. “It’s like joining a family.”
Minh-Chau Le says her experience at UCF has taught her to dream big.
When she first stepped on campus, she pictured herself becoming a university professor one day, and while that is still a goal, it’s not the only goal.
The mechanical engineering major and Burnett Honors Scholar has a particular interest in biomedical engineering and materials science. After attending graduate school, she wants to create a start-up company for low-cost medical devices.
“With our Lake Nona Medical City growing so quickly, I believe it will be an exciting place to make these goals a reality,” she says.
She has already gotten real-world experience on campus, developing biomaterials for tissue engineering and cancer research. She also has shadowed oncologists at local outpatient cancer clinics.
“I know that if I can solve these problems, the solutions or products could potentially be live-saving and life-changing.”
And she has spent her past two summers at Harvard University helping to design and test novel anti-fouling implantable medical devices to treat middle-ear infections.
Le says receiving the astronaut scholarship is a reminder of her responsibility to “reach for the stars and to help others do the same.”
“I like what I do because every day, I get to solve problems and face challenges,” she says. “Especially as an engineer, I know that if I can solve these problems, the solutions or products could potentially be live-saving and life-changing.”
Latifah Maasarani always dreamed of being an entrepreneur, but maintained for years she would never go to college. She was so sure that when her older sister graduated from UCF in 2011, she took her graduation cap, put it on and urged her mother to take a photo.
“I told her, ‘Get a picture now because you’re never going to see this,’” Maasarani says. “If you would have told me back then that I’d be here now, getting ready to graduate in May with my bachelor’s degree and applying for a doctoral program, it would have been unfathomable.”
Maasarani is studying photonic science and engineering with the goal of one day starting a biotech company.
The Burnett Honors Scholar has always wanted to make an impact on the world, and while she envisions her future company solving problems in numerous fields, she is particularly interested in learning how she can help astronauts in space through medical diagnostic devices.
“If we are going to go to Mars or asteroids or other celestial bodies, we need to know how we’re affecting the astronauts, and how we can improve the way we monitor their health.”
“It’s super important for us to know what’s going on inside the astronauts in space because they’re constantly being subjected to radiation and different kinds of harsh environments,” she says. “If we are going to go to Mars or asteroids or other celestial bodies, we need to know how we’re affecting the astronauts, and how we can improve the way we monitor their health.”
A member of the dean’s list and the president of CREOL’s Society of Optics Students, she advocates for women’s growth in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. She enjoys volunteering her time to talk about optics at science fairs or while visiting elementary schools.
“When I get to do those presentations, the little girls tell me, ‘I like your eyebrows’ or ‘You’re cool,’ and what they really mean is, ‘I see you, and I see what you’re doing,’ and they can see that STEM is an option for them,” she says. “That’s really been the highlight of my time here at UCF.”
Students interested in applying for the Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence or other major national awards should contact the Office of Prestigious Awards at [email protected]