A UCF graduate student is one of 10 in the country to be awarded a prestigious fellowship from NASA to perfect a new method for testing jet fuels.

For at least the next two years, 24-year-old Leigh Nash will conduct research for the space agency both at the University of Central Florida and at a NASA center in Ohio.

“I really love space travel and I’d love to work at NASA someday, so this is a really great opportunity,” Nash said. “It’s a foot in the door.”

The Advanced STEM Training and Research (ASTAR) Fellowship is part of NASA’s Minority University Research Education Project, and aims to increase opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math fields among underrepresented populations. That includes women, minorities, disabled people and veterans.

The fellowship allows Nash to conduct NASA-approved research at UCF under the supervision of her faculty research advisor, mechanical and aerospace engineering assistant professor Subith Vasu, who will serve as principal investigator. Nash will also be paired with a NASA researcher who will serve as technical advisor and work alongside her at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland for two months during the summer.

The fellowship includes $35,000 per year to cover Nash’s living expenses, and it pays her tuition and fees, health insurance, travel and other expenses over the summer, and the cost of conferences and other professional development.

Her research will center on aviation fuel. It is often used to cool engines, but the heat can cause the fuel to break down. The current test that’s used to determine when fuels break down is inexact and yields only a small amount of data. Nash will research the use of ellipsometry, an optical technique that may be more promising when it comes to characterizing the properties of standard jet fuels, as well as biofuels and other alternatives.

Nash already has earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering at UCF. She is now pursuing a master’s in mechanical engineering, and is among about a dozen graduate students on Vasu’s team. Recently, Vasu was awarded $1.1 million by the U.S. Department of Energy to investigate whether power plants can use supercritical CO2 to generate energy.

Nash interned at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago this past summer.

“She’s fantastic,” Vasu said. “She has a very good academic record and she clearly deserves this fellowship. She is very hard-working and motivated. And she loves UCF.”

As an undergraduate, Nash played piccolo as a member of the Marching Knights, and during homecoming last month played with the Alumni Band.

Nash grew up close to UCF, in Oviedo. But she chose UCF mostly because of the strength of its College of Engineering and Computer Science – and because of its proximity to Kennedy Space Center, where she hopes to work someday.

“I show my students they can compete with the best students in the U.S.,” Vasu said. “UCF is a young university, but its engineering students are some of the best in the country.”