Shining stars: Meet MSU’s newest Astronaut Scholarship winners

Two students in Mississippi State’s Judy and Bobby Shackouls Honors College are receiving an out-of-this-world opportunity from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.

Zoe M. Fowler, a senior electrical engineering major from Columbus, and Hannah L. Scheaffer, a junior biochemistry major from Ruston, Louisiana, are receiving two of 56 scholarships being presented to the ASF’s 2020 Astronaut Scholars Class, which includes students from 41 universities across the nation. Both were nominated by MSU faculty members and will be formally recognized in August at the ASF’s annual Innovators Gala in Washington, D.C.

Recipients earn a merit-based scholarship of up to $10,000 and may participate in the ASF’s Innovative Leadership Mentor Program, which provides access to a lifelong network of astronauts, Astronaut Scholar alumni, and leaders in academia, technical research and corporate leadership. In addition to being in their junior or senior years of college study in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, scholarship recipients must express intent to pursue research or advance their field upon completion of their degree. Among other application materials, they are required to submit a curriculum vitae, two letters of recommendation and a personal statement.

“I had never written a personal statement before, so it was fun to do that for this application because I learned more about myself and what I enjoy about particular aspects of research,” Scheaffer said. “It also was good practice for graduate school since a personal statement is typically required when you apply.”

Scheaffer said she learned of the Astronaut Scholarship through fellow honors student and Provost Scholar Jacob Easley, one of two MSU students who received the award last year.

“It would be an amazing opportunity to meet an astronaut and converse about what’s happening space-wise, especially the SpaceX launch that just happened,” she said. “I’m also looking forward to getting to know Zoe and learning more about her research in electrical engineering. I think experiences like this are even better when they’re shared with somebody, and I’m excited that it’s somebody else from Mississippi State.”

Fowler said she couldn’t wait to apply after learning of her nomination via email.

“I was really drawn in when I saw the foundation offered a lot of opportunities for mentorship by Astronaut Scholar alumni, C-suite executives, and astronauts,” she said. “That seemed really ideal for me because I want to get a lot of opinions on what I could be doing research-wise to benefit society or what my next life steps could be in general.”

This summer, Fowler plans to focus on writing her first formal research paper, which focuses on foreground extraction in a video sequence. She has been working since freshman year on this research project under the guidance of her father, MSU William L. Giles Distinguished Professor James Fowler. He holds the Billie J. Ball Professorship in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, of which he also serves as interim department head.

“Snow leopards are going extinct and highly camouflaged, and our research could contribute to the development of a program or algorithm to help make snow leopards in the wild more distinguishable in video footage,” Zoe Fowler explained.

A two-time recipient of the MSU Dean of Engineering Undergraduate Research Stipend, Fowler serves as vice chair of the ECE department’s ambassador group. She enjoys giving departmental tours to incoming students and organizing events that encourage involvement and camaraderie among current majors.

“There are so many benefits to research, and there’s always a need for new technology and information,” she said. “I would definitely like to go to graduate school and see where that takes me.”

Scheaffer, also recognized this year as the university’s 18th Barry Goldwater Scholarship honoree, said she too looks forward to pursuing graduate studies, particularly in cancer research. She is the recipient of MSU’s 2020 CVM Undergraduate Research Award and has worked for two years with Dr. Matthew Ross in the College of Veterinary Medicine, studying inflammation, prostaglandins, and the polarization of macrophages by inflammatory stimuli. Among last year’s inaugural MSU Phi Beta Kappa inductees, Scheaffer has won awards for her research presentations at the past two meetings of the South Central Conference of the Society of Toxicology.

In addition to her research and academic accomplishments, Scheaffer is a member of the Famous Maroon Band and Mississippi State Wind Ensemble and an intern at the Wesley Foundation.

Tommy Anderson, an MSU English professor and the Shackouls Honors College’s director of fellowships, said Fowler and Scheaffer “are outstanding students whose undergraduate research makes significant contributions in their fields of study.” Anderson also serves as the College of Arts and Sciences’ associate dean for academic affairs.

“Zoe and Hannah have participated in meaningful research experiences since arriving at Mississippi State, and their selection as Astronaut Scholars reflects their willingness to immerse themselves in deep learning opportunities that add value to the traditional classroom experience,” he said. “I am proud that they have been selected to be part of a cohort of the very best undergraduate STEM scholars in the nation as Astronaut Scholars.”

by: Sasha Steinberg

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Founded in 1978, the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) focuses on providing high-quality and collaborative undergraduate research, scholarly, and creative activity. Among the many activities and networking opportunities that CUR provides, the organization also offers support for the professional growth of faculty and administrators through expert-designed institutes, conferences, and a wide-range of volunteer positions. The CUR community, made up of nearly 700 institutions and 13,000 individuals, continues to provide a platform for discussion and other resources related to mentoring, connecting, and creating relationships centered around undergraduate research. CUR’s advocacy efforts are also a large portion of its work as they strive to strengthen support for undergraduate research. Its continued growth in connections with representatives, private foundations, government agencies, and campuses world-wide provides value to its members and gives voice to undergraduate research. CUR is committed to inclusivity and diversity in all of its activities and our community.

CUR focuses on giving a voice to undergraduate research with learning through doing. It provides connections to a multitude of campuses and government agencies, all while promoting networking and professional growth to its community.