Engineering Student Ellen Zhong Receives Astronaut Scholarship

August 14, 2012

August 13, 2012 — Ellen Zhong, a rising third-year chemical engineering major in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, is the University of Virginia's 2012 recipient of the Astronaut Scholarship.

The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation annually awards a $10,000 scholarship to one student from each of 26 colleges and universities. Zhong is only the second U.Va. student to receive the scholarship.

Former astronauts who are members of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation travel the country each fall to present scholarship checks. Zhong will receive her check on Sept. 11 at 2 p.m. in the auditorium of the Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections Library. The scheduled presenter is retired astronaut Gerald P. Carr, a veteran of the Skylab mission that, at the time, was the longest manned spaceflight in history, spanning 84 days between November 1973 and February 1974.

Foundation members include Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, the first two humans to set foot on an extraterrestrial body. Last year, Edgar Mitchell of the Apollo 14 mission presented the scholarship check to Hannah Meredith, who graduated in May with a degree in biomedical engineering.

The scholarship aims to reward and encourage students pursuing a degree in the sciences. Candidates are nominated by a faculty member, must be at least in their second year of college, be majoring in engineering or applied science and have demonstrated excellence, creativity and initiative in their chosen field. They also must be involved in research with their department.

"I am extremely grateful and honored to have received this award," Zhong said. "It has confirmed my desire to go to graduate school and pursue a career in research, and I have no doubt it will open up many opportunities in the future. It is also very gratifying to have my work recognized."

Zhong plans to continue the research she started in her second year. She is working on understanding the causes of protein structural instability during chromatography using computer simulation. Professor Michael Shirts is overseeing her research.

"The goal of my research is to probe the relationships between protein structure or chromatography operating conditions and the propensity of a protein to unfold," she said.

She is writing her own simulation program for rapid, efficient simulation of proteins on surfaces, which she hopes will become a useful tool for many researchers. She also hopes that her work will be able to improve chromatographic processes and the design of surfaces, help elucidate some of the fundamental interactions not directly examinable through experiment, and aid in the design of stable, pharmaceutically relevant proteins.

As a third-year student, she said is thinking about graduate school and ultimately pursuing a Ph.D. She also is working on having her academic work published. "I am currently outlining a few papers that will hopefully come to fruition," she said.

For information on the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, click here.

– by Rebekah Bremer