MELBOURNE, FLA. — Florida Tech students Samantha Sequeira and Ruth Nichols have been named 2022 Astronaut Scholars, the prestigious recognition from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation that signifies they are among the best and brightest STEM students in the country.
Sequeira, a senior, is majoring in biomedical engineering, with a minor in nanotechnology. The scholarship will help her continue to seek answers and cures – a quest that has some personal motivation.
“Biomedical engineering is the future of medicine,” she said in an essay written for her ASF application. “Being able to study aneurysms, thromboses, and stem cell treatments holds great personal weight because it robbed my family of my grandparents. I aspire to prevent that loss for other families.”
For Nichols, a junior who is a double major in astrobiology and applied mathematics, attending college was not a given in what she described in her ASF essay as a “low-income, working-class” upbringing in Texas. She said her interest in STEM came from her single father, an oilfield worker who scanned pictures for Nichols from a science textbook and helped her with multiplication tables on the drive home from school.
“His example as a derrickman who would risk his life on oil drilling rigs to support me as I was growing up instilled within me a dedication to always try my hardest,” she said. “It’s these humble beginnings that remind me of why I want to help others from similar backgrounds (especially women and other underrepresented groups) who are curious about the universe to achieve their dreams of going into STEM fields.”
Both Sequeira and Nichols are outstanding students and creative thinkers and deeply passionate about what they do, according to letters of recommendation that accompanied their scholarship applications.
Sequeira, winner of both Outstanding Student of the Year and Distinguished Student Scholar awards, has worked in two labs the past two years: the Multiscale Cardiovascular Fluids Laboratory and the Motion Estimation and Analysis Laboratory.
The fluids lab is run by Venkat Keshav Chivukula, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering. He has worked with Sequeira as course instructor, mentor and research advisor in the lab and believes she has “outstanding potential as a researcher and a powerhouse in the future for high-impact research.”
“Samantha has demonstrated exceptional qualities that make her an ideal fit for research, namely her dedication, passion, enthusiasm, intellectual ability, willingness to learn and above all, to not be fazed by failure,” Chivukula wrote.
Nichols, who has also won both Outstanding Student of the Year and Distinguished Student Scholar awards, has worked in Robert Usselman’s quantum biology lab and Andrew Palmer’s chemical ecology and astrobiology lab, where she was involved in growing tomatoes in Mars-like conditions for ketchup maker Heinz.
Palmer has worked with Nichols in her leadership role in the Florida Tech chapter of the Astrobiology Research Education Society (ARES), as well in class, and he has seen her academic excellence and work ethic first hand. He said she is “easily” among the top 5 percent of students he has worked with across his career.
“She is tireless in her pursuits of opportunities for her fellow undergraduates to participate in astrobiology research and activities. She was active in helping create our Mars garden display to showcase vertical farming and LED lighting, as well as projects involving robotic farming systems and the deployment of an artificial habitat,” he said. “In so doing, she has become instrumental in setting the tone for astrobiology research on the Florida Tech campus for the foreseeable future, a laudable accomplishment itself.”
Both recipients are active outside of the classroom, as well.
Sequeira is president of the Florida Tech chapter of Alpha Eta Mu Beta Biomedical Engineering Honors Society and a member of the Honors College, Phi Eta Sigma Honors Society, National Society of Biomedical Engineers and National Society of Women Engineers. She is a member of Florida Tech’s cheerleading and dance team.
Nichols is a member of Florida Tech’s Honors College. She is an executive board member for ARES, where she runs marketing and outreach programs, and a member of the Beta Beta Beta Biological Honor Society and Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society. She was a part of two Mars Desert Research Station analog mission crews and, as a high school student, founded a nonprofit called SciWare Books which creates educational graphic novels and hosts educational events.
This year, 68 undergraduate students from 45 universities and colleges across the United States have been named to ASF’s 2022 class of Astronaut Scholars. These exceptional students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) will collectively receive up to nearly $1 million in financial support.
New this year is a group of Astronaut Scholars from ASF’s Founders for the Future program, which was created using a $1 million grant from Blue Origin’s nonprofit Club for the Future. Named in honor of ASF’s founders, the Mercury 7 astronauts, the program will select an additional seven Astronaut Scholars each year for the next seven years from seven current university partners.
“Every year, we are blown away by the dozens of extraordinary undergraduate students who are dedicated to pursuing STEM to help create a better life here on Earth,” said Caroline Schumacher, ASF’s president and CEO. “This year is extra special to us because we’ve been able to expand our impact through the Founders for the Future program. Ultimately, we are fueling the career paths of these students, who are destined to make lasting contributions in their chosen STEM fields and become the game-changers of tomorrow.”
ASF will present this year’s Astronaut Scholars during its Innovators Gala on Aug. 27 at the Hilton Orlando.