Three UCF students have been awarded the highly competitive Astronaut Scholarships for 2023 — raising the university’s student awards from the organization to 57 since 1989.

In 2023, 68 students from the nation’s top research institutions were awarded up to $15,000 each through the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF). 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.

NASA’s first space travelers, the Mercury 7 astronauts, sponsored the original seven Astronaut Scholarships. It’s awarded to explorers, but not necessarily the kind that wear spacesuits and helmets. These are students who dedicate their research to making a difference in this world and beyond.

UCF’s 2023 Astronaut Scholars are:

A natural-born writer who turned to biology for personal reasons; a soccer player turned planetary scientist; and a competitive dancer studying the universe through the lenses of physics and art.

Samantha Stoltz

Major: Biology

Mentors: Elayraja Kolanthai (biomaterial science), William Crampton (analysis of electric fish species), Sudipta Seal (materials science and engineering)

Four years ago, Samantha Stoltz could not have envisioned herself speaking in front of brilliant people at Kennedy Space Center. Yet here she is, invited to the podium because of her ambitious research, her honor as an Astronaut Scholar and perhaps partly because she exudes so much enthusiasm.

The Burnett Honors Scholar can use terms like “epigenetics” and “radical scavenging” and make them sound fun. The smile you see while she’s volunteering with the Girl Scouts of Citrus is the same one you see in the UCF lab where she’s trying to find elusive cures for people suffering from a plethora of diseases.

“I love a good challenge,” Stoltz says, “and the Astronaut Scholarship has added to my desire to innovate.”

Personal reasons also drive her research. Her dad is among millions of people suffering from illnesses that are sometimes undetected and often under-researched. Stoltz herself experienced fibromyalgia chronic pain and fatigue symptoms as early as 13 years old.

“I started using a holistic approach — nutrition, exercise, mental well-being — to crack my own code in an effort to alleviate the symptoms,” Stolz says.

It’s also why Stoltz decided to study something other than literature or writing, which came more naturally to her. Instead, she accepted the challenges of biology and embraced a motto: the growth is in the discomfort.

“Science has never come easy for me, but the more I learn, the more I enjoy it because research helps me understand what’s going on with people like my dad and me. Now I’m in a position to do something about it,” she says.

Stoltz has funneled her research interests into the mysteries of oxidative stress, where antioxidants in the body cannot keep up with unstable molecules, or free radicals. Her preliminary research has found cerium oxide nanoparticles effective at offsetting oxidative stress and reducing inflammation, with what appear to be limited side effects.

“I’ve moved it into biological studies to see how it might work on breast cancer cells and hope to eventually apply them to other diseases. If this can help combat oxidative stress, it would help so many people, almost like a panacea.”

She’s writing a research article and hopes to be published in the spring. But Stoltz is not the same person who once dreaded public speaking and needed a detailed plan. After graduation, she’ll spend a month in Italy. Maybe she’ll find a research opportunity there or a gateway somewhere else before pursuing a Ph.D.

“The more I live, the more I appreciate going with the flow. I’ll take whatever path allows me to help make the world healthier and happier.”

Luis Santori

Major: Math

Mentors: Kerri Donaldson Hanna (planetary geology), Adrienne Dove (thermal conductivity), Eduardo Teixeira (math)

When Luis Santori first heard about the Astronaut Scholarship, he responded the way many students do: “It must be for students doing aerospace research.”

One of his research advisors, Kerri Donaldson Hanna, told Santori the scholarship is for students studying biology, chemistry, life sciences and math.

“She told me it’s for students like me,” says Santori, a Burnett Honors Scholar.

He’d been using his newfound math creativity — yes, math creativity — to help Donaldson Hanna make lunar maps and examine the composition of anorthosite on the moon. From day one, Santori has wondered, “How did the moon get there?”

He asks a similar question about himself: “How did I get here, into a lab at UCF?” His interest in STEM started with his drive on the soccer field, long before he knew was STEM meant. The laws of physics crept into the nuances of the game and into Santori’s conscious. For a high-school science project, he used physics to model kicks: how ball spin, angle, and force affect the path. During a course in astronomy his first year at UCF, his interest in soccer shifted to space. That’s when he contacted Donaldson Hanna to ask if she might have a research opportunity. A few weeks later, he sat in awe among a group of graduate students and Ph.D.s, listening and nourishing his mind.

“I did not expect to get hooked on research,” Santori says. “I’ve poured the same passion I had for soccer into planetary science.”

The change of perspective also led Santori to change his major from physics and computer science to another subject he didn’t take seriously in high school: math.

“Studying is like sports: you reap what you sow,” he says. “The more I got into math at UCF, the more I realized it isn’t just numbers on rinse and repeat. You use creativity and reasoning. The only limitations are in your head.”

Santori has applied these skills to research projects on thermal conductivity with Adrienne Dove, on calculus of variation and PDEs with Eduardo Teixeira, and on modeling DNA self-assembly (making structures for optimal drug delivery). Meantime, the Astronaut Scholarship inspires his long-term commitment to study the composition of rocks on the lunar surface so he can gain a better understanding of where they, and the moon, came from.

“The award validates the work I’ve put into this research — the weekends, the late nights, and the progress. It fuels the same kind of enthusiasm I had as a kid playing soccer, except now the accomplishments are more gratifying.”

Olivia Bitcon

Major: Physics

Mentors: Julie Brisset (properties of asteroids), Jim Cooney (cosmology)

At an event in downtown Orlando to honor Astronaut Scholars from around the country, Olivia Bitcon found herself in the company of astronauts and STEM researchers. She asked them a few questions and, in a twist, they asked herquestions. One came up often: What are you researching?

Bitcon explained her research on inflationary cosmology and primordial gravitational waves to this new network of colleagues — topics she became passionate about because of mentors like UCF planetary scientist Julie Brisset and physics instructor Jim Cooney.

“They made concepts that you can’t see or touch come to life,” says Bitcon, a Burnett Honors Scholar.

As a teenager and competitive dancer, Bitcon noticed an artistic quality about stars, especially on the rare nights when she could look up and see beyond the ambient city light near Chicago. But she saw everything in a new light shortly after she arrived at UCF on a Benacquisto Scholarship for National Merit Scholars. One night she looked to the east and saw a flare rising from Earth.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, wow, that’s a rocket. I can see it with my own eyes.’”

Around the same time, Bitcon began research with the Florida Space Institute. Under Brisset’s guidance, she studied the properties of asteroid surfaces.

“It was exciting to wear a lab coat and explore something as distant as celestial bodies. I wanted to keep going farther.”

An astronomy class with Cooney took her where she wanted to go.

“He had a unique way of making abstract ideas understandable, like how gravity works when objects are accelerating. You can’t show it. You have to explain it. He did it so well that I wanted to look deeper into the science of cosmos.”

Bitcon’s subsequent research became the foundation of her Honors Undergraduate Thesis on inflationary cosmology and primordial gravitational waves. On her Astronaut Scholarship application, Bitcon conveyed how she had to self-direct the research into the subject of astroparticle physics.

“You hear about trial and error in research. With cosmology, it’s more of a test of patience and perseverance, which aligns with my personality,” she says.

After graduating, Bitcon plans to pursue a Ph.D. in physics and continue her research on the interface of cosmology and particle physics. She’d also like to teach.

“Ideally, I want to make this topic more approachable for students, the same way my mentors did for me. A student could be like me — they just need someone to show them the beauty of physics and art coming together in the universe.”

If you are interested in the Astronaut Scholarship or other prestigious awards, please reach out to the Office of Prestigious Awards at