You might hear the word “optics” and think of eyeglasses or lasers, but optics is so much more than that. It is a field of engineering and physics responsible for making the cameras on the Osiris rex mission, the heart rate sensor on the back of many smart watches, the mirrors of the Giant Magellan Telescope, and the vast fiber optic network that enables the internet today.
I am now in the last year of my PhD in optical sciences, where I design and use multiphoton microscopes, a special type of microscope that uses physics called nonlinear optics to take pictures of samples. A typical microscope would need to use stained tissue to good pictures, but our system can use unstained tissue, allowing us to help diagnose diseases faster. One of my projects has been to use our microscope to increase the odds of survival in pancreatic cancer surgery, where current methods to check for cancer during surgery are time consuming and far from perfect. Our microscope could drastically increase the speed and confidence in finding the last bits of cancer to ensure a cancer free surgical margin and a better chance of survival.
The need for skilled optical engineers is only growing, and with it grows the need to spread the news about this fascinating science and career field. I would not have known about optics myself if not for the efforts of current students doing outreach events when I was a high school student. Because of this, I am passionate about spreading the word about careers in optics through visiting classrooms all across the educational spectrum from first graders to high schoolers, as well as organizing larger events like the Laser Fun Day event that our college hosts that brings around 1,000 visitors to learn about optics every year.
The Astronaut scholarship has been an important part of my story, enabling me to stand out on other prestigious scholarship applications. I know I am not the only student to have had their career impacted by this wonderful foundation.
When I was a kid, I loved watching this movie (on VHS tape!) called “There goes a Space Shuttle,” which took you inside NASA, and showed you the sort of things that astronauts did to train to go into space. I consider it one of the original things that inspired me to be interested in science. I even recall writing a school report on John Glenn because I was so interested in astronauts. To think that I would one day receive an honor and scholarship set up by him and the other Mercury 7 astronauts is still astonishing to me. The Astronaut Scholarship was my first national-level scholarship, and it has enabled me to stand out and receive several more high impact scholarships, such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which has paid for my PhD tuition and given me a generous stipend for three years of my graduate study. Of all of the awards I’ve won, the Astronaut Scholarship comes with some of the best perks, from the scholar network I’ve been connected to, to the chances to meet the some of the giants of our nation’s space history like Captain Jim Lovell. ASF still cares about what I do, and wants me to stay connected with them to help inspire the next generation of Astronaut scholars. I am truly blessed to be called an Astronaut Scholar, and I proudly wear my scholar pin on my suit jacket whenever I’m at a professional event.