Student recognized with national STEM award

Astronaut Scholarship Foundation Award presented for physics, computer science achievements

Fourth-year College student Steven Stetzler recently received an award of $10,000 from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, a nonprofit started by the surviving Mercury 7 astronauts and dedicated to encouraging talented students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

Majoring in physics and computer science, Stetzler started working in Asst. Physics Prof. Utpal Chatterjee's lab focusing on condensed matter research beginning his second year. Stetzler’s research included building pieces of equipment to examine the role of temperature on the resistance of materials.

“I was always really into computers as a kid,” Stetzler said. “I just liked tinkering with my own computer and messing around with it, but I didn’t actually know that I wanted to do computer science until I took CS 1110 … I just loved programming so much, and that’s when I decided maybe I’ll do computer science.”

Stetzler underwent a thorough application process involving a personal statement with current research and future goals, letters of recommendation from multiple physics department professors and a review by a University selection committee. Kathryn Thornton, director of the aerospace engineering program and the liaison between the University and the ASF, then forwarded Stetzler’s nomination to the ASF.

“Steven has been involved in research almost since he got here,” Thornton said. “He is a terrific student and terrific candidate.” 

A former astronaut and an inductee into the Astronaut’s Hall of Fame, Thornton encouraged a partnership between the University and the ASF. The Foundation recognized curious students that probe the frontiers of science and technology.

As part of the award, Stetzler attended a gala in Washington, D.C., where he and students from 40 other participating institutions nationwide had the opportunity to network with firms in STEM fields. 

“The research that these students are doing is going to change the direction we are going in the future,” ASF Scholarship Program Director Nicole Russ said. “There are scholars who have grown up and are actually working out there and are actually making a difference.”

Though Stetzler has a promising career ahead of him, expressing aspirations for a doctorate in physics and internships at national laboratories, he also identified an understanding for fully enjoying the work.

“Basically the entire summer [when I worked at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory], I got to do what I really like doing — which is programming and writing scripts and analyzing data,” Stetzler said. “The work environment is so relaxed and so nice, and you have the opportunity to just learn so much about radio astronomy, [and] everybody would just stand around and chat and drink coffee.”

According to Stetzler, taking the time to appreciate the beauty inherent in science is just as important as the research itself.

“Everybody should take a moment and gain some cosmic perspective,” Stetzler said. “Look at the stars and realize that we are really small and insignificant — and that nothing matters — but we can still enjoy life and we can still learn about the universe.”

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