Catherine Millwater has been dreaming of space long before arriving at UCF. In 2018, the eager 17-year-old reached out to UCF’s Planetary Sciences Group in hopes they had room for a high school student willing to learn how to be a researcher. Spoiler alert: They did.

Millwater, who expects to graduate from UCF in May 2023, is now majoring in physics with an astronomy track and a minor in math. This summer she is at the University of Cornell as part of a U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program working in Cornell’s astrophysics and planetary science program. The NSF funds REU programs, which pay most of the students’ expenses for the duration of the program. Her research focus is systems engineering and spacecraft design, more specifically effective communication between remotely operated vehicles and satellite constellations, like Starlink, to successfully offload large quantities of data.

“I selected this area because I want to work on rovers, landers and NASA missions in my future career,” Millwater says. “I hope to one day be able to lead missions and studies of my own.”

As a dedicated member of UCF’s Exoplanets Research Group and the Exolith Lab, Millwater is constantly diving deep into her research focuses. She analyzes astronomical observations of an exoplanet using our specialized homebrew software at Exoplanets Research Group, mentored by Pegasus Professor Joseph Harrington. At the Exolith Lab, which is a part of the Center for Lunar and Asteroid Surface Science (CLASS), a NASA SSERVI node, she utilizes simulated regolith to test the geotechnical properties of those terrestrial surfaces, which is important for those building landers, rovers, designing instruments, and planning missions.

When she isn’t in the lab investigating moon rocks, Millwater enjoys regular rock-climbing, hiking and scuba diving. She’s a long-time member of UCF’s Rock-Climbing Club and is the president of the Astronomy Society on campus. The group emphasizes community outreach and science communication to the general public to help educate the community about why science matters.

Most recently, she was awarded the highly competitive Astronaut Scholarship. The honor awards the best and brightest STEM students conducting research that will forge ahead research in their field. This year, the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation awarded 68 scholarships to students from 45 different universities across the U.S.

“The Astronaut Scholarship to me is the product of dedication and work throughout all my years in undergrad,” Millwater says. “This award represents a goal I have been striving towards since I started my degree and winning it feels surreal.

One of the reasons for her success is her willingness to reach out and talk to faculty. She tells all her classmates to get involved in research and don’t be shy. Professors are easy to talk to and more than willing to take on an eager and dedicated undergraduate, she says. And be open to possibilities.

“Don’t be afraid to branch out into another discipline because interdisciplinary projects are very interesting and produce unique findings,” Millwater adds.

Upon her return to UCF from her summer REU, she will be applying the new knowledge about electronics and systems engineering she learned at Cornell to her current research projects as she wraps them up. She will also continue to promote science education through her work with the Astronomy Society and hopes to attend as many UCF events, games and concerts to make the most of her final year.

Millwater thanks her mentors and professors at UCF who have been willing and eager to teach undergraduates, like herself, how to conduct research, present findings at a conference and write an academic paper. She is grateful for her experiences in the lab and hopes to continue a path in research following graduation. She plans to obtain a doctoral degree in planetary sciences after receiving her bachelor’s.