Isabella Pardo has been recognized as one of the first 20 Optica Women Scholars in the world. The award supports women majoring in optics, physics, chemistry, math, or engineering who are pursuing careers in optics and photonics.

Launched this past January, the program received more than 160 applications from 36 countries from both undergraduate and master’s students. Students underwent a rigorous application process to compete for the $10,000 scholarship, professional development aid, mentorship, and a global network as they enter their prospective fields. The ten-year scholarship fund of over $2 million was established with contributions from ten $100,000 donors and a $1 million match from the foundation. Some sponsors included Google, NeoPhotonics, Intel and many others.

For Pardo, the award is an example of what happens when you persevere. As a daughter of two immigrant parents, she has overcome many obstacles. When she was younger, her family faced financial hurdles, resulting in a move back to Colombia, where Pardo grew up. After graduating high school at the age of 16, she returned to the U.S. without her parents to pursue higher education.

“I have overcome language, cultural and financial barriers due to the passionate and hardworking mindset my parents instilled in me,” Pardo says. “I owe my determination, passion, and character to my family, to whom I am forever grateful.”

It’s that grit that has propelled her to pursue a bachelor’s in photonic science and engineering with a minor in physics and astronomy. Pardo has been excited by space research ever since she began at UCF, which explains her current research focuses on working in ray tracing simulations at different fuel levels, initial velocities, and initial accelerations to study the behavior of fuel in a fuel tank.

This research is important because without gravity, it is challenging to accurately measure the fuel left in a spacecraft, which is one of the determinant factors of a mission. Pardo’s research hopes to solve this problem and make space missions more efficient. Her ultimate goal is to develop an imaging-based fluid gauging system to improve fuel management in space.

Although Pardo entered the application process on her own, it was the encouragement from Assistant Professor at College of Optics and Photonics and Director of Optical Imaging System Lab Shuo “Sean” Pang and current UCF doctoral student Andrew Klein who propelled her to finish the application process strong. She also thanks the multitudes of programs she’s been a part of, such as McNair Scholars at UCF, VECTOR at Valencia College, the research groups at CREOL, the UCF Department of Physics and the companies where she has interned. This achievement is a combination of the entirety of her experiences and wonderful people she has met along the way, she says.

“I feel honored to receive this award,” Pardo says. “I am tremendously thankful for the overwhelming support from professors and students at CREOL that made this possible.”

The Optica Women Scholars scholarship will go toward reducing any financial barriers that may arise, allowing Pardo to focus on her academics and research during the remainder of her undergraduate journey at UCF. She plans to graduate in Spring 2023.