Astronaut Scholarship

University students Jenny Stern and Jessica van Loben Sels are two recipients of the $10,000 Astronaut Scholarship Foundation's Astronaut Scholarship.

From the time she was in fifth grade, Jenny Stern, a senior from Lawrence, knew she was interested in whales. As someone from the Midwest, she was "captivated" from the first time she saw whales in an aquarium.

As she grew older, that fascination became an interest in the effect climate change has on whales — the cornerstone of her undergraduate research at the University.

Stern has focused her research on the arctic regions of the world. She said the arctic is one of the first areas that would be affected by climate change, and she wants to know how arctic whales will adapt to the changing climate.

“When I joined Dr. Joy Ward’s lab, I really learned to have an environmental perspective," Stern said. "Through that I saw the impact that research can make, but also the impact that outreach can make."

Stern and Jessica van Loben Sels, a senior from Albuquerque, N.M., were announced last week as the first-ever University recipients of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s Astronaut Scholarship. The $10,000 recognition was founded in 1984 by the six surviving members of the Mercury 7 mission with the goal of encouraging students to pursue scientific endeavors, according to the website.

To be considered for the scholarship, applicants had to be nominated from multiple professors in their STEM fields and have extensive research experience.

Stern and van Loben Sels were selected as recipients from a field of four University students after KU was added to the program this year. According to a news release, the ASF board of directors selected the University because of success in STEM fields. A University committee selected the four nominees, and the ASF board chose Stern and van Loben Sels.

“It is a huge honor, and sharing it with Jessica is also a huge honor,” Stern said. "The fact the ASF puts aside money and that KU also contributes to sustained leadership in science is really meaningful, but being the inaugural recipient makes it even more of an honor.”

Joy Ward, a biology professor, nominated Stern for the scholarship along with assistant biology professor William Leo Smith. Ward said she was impressed with Stern’s contributions to the "intellectual climate" of her lab and her passion for finding solutions to problems in both her research and class work. She said she had no doubt Stern would become a leader in the future of the environmental scientific arena.

“This award is intended to support top future scientists in our country and keep us competitive at the national level. I view Jenny as a very top researcher, one of the best coming out in biology,” Ward said. “This just enhances my opinion that we have top students here nationally at the University of Kansas.”

Van Loben Sels, the other inaugural winner, was not interested in research when she came to the University, and she originally wanted to major in clinical laboratory sciences. Since then, she has decided she wants to be a research professor.

The turnaround came at the beginning of her sophomore year when she joined David Davido’s research lab about the development of the herpes simplex virus. Since she joined Davido’s lab, she has tutored students and done some undergraduate teaching, a feature she wanted to incorporate into her future career.

“I want to become a researching professor and study diseases in a context where you would be able to identify targets for therapies,” she said. “I’ve been tutoring for several years now, so I wanted the teaching to be an aspect of whatever job I ended up wanting. Being a researching professor kind of merged both of those.”

Davido and Robert Ward, an associate biology professor, nominated van Loben Sels for the scholarship. She said her professors have been instrumental not only in applying for the scholarship, but throughout her college experience. They have helped her with research papers, interviews and presenting and publishing her research, and they’ve written reference letters for her.

“They have been very helpful in pushing me to present my research at conferences and publish my research,” she said. “I actually taught with Dr. Ward and he has been very encouraging and written me letters as well. All of these professors have been really helpful not only in giving me the scientific foundation, but the tools I’ll need to be able to present it and get other people involved in research as well.”

Van Loben Sels pointed to her enthusiasm as a reason she won the scholarship. She said she would encourage other students to take advantage of similar opportunities.

“If someone presents you with an opportunity and says, ‘Do you want to apply for this?’ the answer is always yes,” she said. “That is honestly the whole reason I got any of these scholarships. As long as you have a stable foundation with your lab director and your professors, all it takes is you taking the time to present yourself as someone who wants to make a better future for other people."

Stern and van Loben Sels will speak and be recognized in an event on Monday commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope at Spooner Hall at 5 p.m. Steven Hawley will also give a presentation about the telescope following the recognition.

Editor’s note: Jenny Stern is a science columnist for The Kansan.