AU Goes to Space

American University has expanded their STEM educational programs to out of this world projects.

AWOL staff had the opportunity to speak with the AU physics department to discuss their newest focus: the AU Thin Sat project. 

Dr. Cyndee Finkel, a professional lecturer in the Department of Physics, is spearheading a new project as part of the AU Thin Sat project. Collaborating with the Virginia Space Agency and the research organization Xinabox, they have started a project to help students launch satellites into space.

Through this initiative, students have the opportunity to learn about — and create —  cubesats, which are small satellites, approximately 10 centimeters long.

“These cubesats are divided into slices called thin sats,” Dr. Finkel said. “The creation of thin sats is important to distribute the entire volume of satellites to many people and organizations.”

American University students can help collaborate on this project by either participating in the engineering and design of thin sats or through outreach activities to engage students in local middle and high schools.

Kristof Aldenderfer, the technical lead on project, said, “Cube stats are a way to allow educational institutions to easily engage with satellites at a much lower cost. It’s expensive to send things into space.”

The AU Thin Sat Project  has partnerships with local schools in the District to help those students also launch satellites into space, beginning in October. Participating schools include Woodson High School in Anacostia, Hardy Middle School, and Saint Elizabeth’s Middle School.

“We’re engaging with local schools by visiting every two weeks and providing a small teaching component along with hands on experience for creating actual satellites,” Dr. Finkel said.

The engineering initiative has three phases. The first phase includes receiving sensors from the VA Space Agency and practicing with party balloon launches. The initiative will then test their satellites with high altitude balloon testing at VA Space. Finally, using feedback from their test trials, they will develop a finalized engineering model to send into space.

Jacob VanCampen, a senior physics student and technical lead on the project, said, “My role in the project is to create the satellites from scratch. I’m basically engineering the sensors on board of the satellite.”

The thin sats will be developed utilizing ultraviolet light sensors sensors and magnetometers, instruments to detect the Earth’s magnetic pull. They will be launched at the Maryland Eastern Shore and can be tracked real time to evaluate the effectiveness of the space exploration trip.

“[The project] started with a desktop particle detector prototype borrowed from MTI,” VanCampen said, referring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We’re planning for a smaller, lighter, and more energy efficient form that can send information back to Earth.”

These satellites will be developed during the entirety of the school year and then sent to the VA Space Agency in June. The satellites will later be launched in November 2019.

The thin sats will orbit for 5 days, collecting specific information for the project, with a maximum life span of 12 to 15 days in space.

American University became involved with this project through Fred Bruhweiler, AU’s Physicist in Residence. He promoted his department’s involvement through his connections with the Institute for Integrated Space Science and  Technology, an AU institute founded in 2017 to promote STEM-related education in space-related fields.

This project is an opportunity for anyone passionate about space exploration as well as learning and teaching about engineering concepts.

Aldenderfer said, “This project will help students learn engineering skills and the practical application of science- and hopefully appreciate space science even more.”

Taylor Sabol is a senior studying public health.

New AU Institute Supports Research in Space Science and Technology By Jennifer Maher | 

The Washington DC Metropolitan area is home to world-leading institutions dedicated to Space Science and Technology, including NASA headquarters and the Goddard Space Flight Center, and other government and industry labs and offices located throughout the region. To take advantage of American University’s unique location at the center of all this activity, the AU Institute for Integrated Space Science and Technology (ISSTI) was formed in 2017 and will have its official launch party in the Don Myers Technology and Innovation Building this October 19 as part of the College of Arts and Sciences STEAM Faire activities. 

Originally envisioned by former AU physics professor UJ Sofia, ISSTI grew out of the Department of Physics with the goal of attracting and supporting externally funded astronomy and astrophysics research scientists. Over the last year, under the direction of physics professor Phil Johnson, its mission has expanded to create opportunities for students, staff, and faculty. ISSTI is also working together with the Department of Physics to promote STEM education in space-related fields.
ISSTI has various exciting interdisciplinary projects at the cutting edge of science and technology. For instance, ISSTI member Fred Bruhweiler and his team are studying a new type of nova-like star (“red transients”) using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, and are also studying our Sun using data from the NASA solar flare observatory RHESSI which was put into orbit in 2002. ISSTI member Demetrios Poulios is developing laser, fiber optic, and lidar systems for NASA missions, including the Global Ecosystem Dynamic Investigation (GEDI) mission to study the Earth’s forests and topography, and subsystems for possible future life-hunting NASA missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Titan. Last Spring, ISSTI co-sponsored the symposium “Environments of Terrestrial Planets Under the Young Sun: Seeds of Biomolecules”, help at NASA Goddard and organized by ISSTI research professor Vladimir Airapetian. ISSTI Director Phil Johnson is PI on two cooperative agreements with the Goddard Center for Astrobiology that support 5 full-time research faculty and staff investigating the origins of life in the Early solar system, including research on the composition of comets with the goal of understanding the origins of planetary water and organic molecules, and the remote sensing of planetary atmospheres, including Mars and Earth.

With the goal of building opportunities that make AU an exciting school for STEM-interested students, the Department of Physics and ISSTI, under the leadership of physics professorial lecturer Cyndee Finkel and ISSTI research faculty Fred Bruhweiler, have recently partnered with Virginia Space, operator of the Mid-Atlantic Space Port, to launch three student-built ThinSats. These satellites are roughly the size of a cell phone and will have a 5-10 days of orbit life before burning up on reentry. They will be built in the Myers Design and Build Lab (DaBL), and the project will include outreach to local middle and high schools. The AU – Virginia Space ThinSats are expected to launch next Fall. 


There are presently 20 ISSTI members, all appointed in the Department of Physics, with external funding totaling $7.5M, including 8 research faculty, 3 postdocs, 3 staff scientists, 3 programmatic staff, and 3 regular physics department faculty. There are another 6 recently appointed research faculty actively seeking funding. Current ISSTI sponsors include NASA (11 awards), Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (2 awards), NSF (1 award), JPL (1 award), and the Space Science Telescope Institute (3 awards). Professor Johnson expects to add more externally funded research scientists this coming year, while also strengthening ties to other AU departments where there are overlapping interests in space, technology, innovation, and outreach. In Summary, ISSTI is creating amazing opportunities for AU students, staff, and faculty to work on cutting-edge space science and technology.

AU Wins Grants for Work to Make Post-secondary Education Accessible to All | June 26, 2018

All students deserve an equitable and accessible pathway to postsecondary opportunity.

This is the guiding principal behind American University’s new Center for Postsecondary Readiness and Success (CPRS), which launched this year and is already making news in the education world. The center has received three grants totaling more than $400,000 from Civic Nation, The Kresge Foundation, and Raise DC.

They will help support the Center’s work to improve student access to college by closing higher education opportunity gaps, particularly for low income students, first-generation students, and students of color.

“We aim to position the center in a leadership role to challenge systemic and embedded barriers to equitable postsecondary opportunity,” says Laura Owen, CPRS director and AU School of Education research professor.

“We are working with practitioners and researchers to develop new counseling and advising models and discover evidence-based practices that best support students along the cradle-to-career pipeline.”


Though higher education is a critical pathway for social mobility, disparities in college access and degree attainment still persist. According to a 2016 Department of Education Report, the gap in bachelor’s degree attainment is widening for both black and Hispanic adults compared to white adults. Specifically, it has doubled from 9 to 20 percent for Hispanic residents since 1974 and from 6 to 13 percent for black residents since 1964.

American University’s School of Education formed the Center for Postsecondary Readiness and Success in January to work towards closing these gaps. This spring, The Kresge Foundation awarded $100,000 to AU to support the center’s official launch and mission.

Owen said the center’s work will be informed by the latest and most robust research findings into student outcomes. “Our mission is to put best practices and knowledge into the hands of policymakers, while also connecting it to K-12 counselors, teachers, and leaders,” she said. Specifically, CPRS will work to identify a common set of practitioner competencies needed to support students; to conduct interdisciplinary research to unpack effective practices that support equitable student postsecondary exploration and planning; and to publish reports to disseminate knowledge and provide tools to help US schools adopt new, evidence-based practices to support all students.


Parents and teachers know that one way to get high-school students to pay attention is to text them. This is the premise behind the Up Next texting program, which helps prepare students for college by texting them timely information as they need it. Up Next sends messages about everything from preparing for the SAT/ACT to applying for financial aid.

Now, through a generous grant from The Andrew Mellon Foundation, the Up Next texting program will be expanded to serve 300,000 students beginning this fall. Two cohorts of 150,000 students each will receive text messages for two years (senior year of high school, summer after high school graduation, and during freshman year of college). Owen will oversee the school level implementation of Up Next and conduct the qualitative evaluation of the program. She will also provide support and technical assistance to the program’s partners.


The center was also awarded a grant by Raise DC, a multi-sector partnership of local stakeholder working to provide every child with opportunities to succeed. CPRS was awarded $45,000 to support the 2018 the District of Columbia Access College Program (DC-CAP) Summer Melt Texting program.  DC-CAP is a privately-funded nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging and enabling DC public high school students to enroll in and graduate from college.

CPRS will work with DC-CAP College Retention Advisors to provide text messaging support to 3,500 rising DC college freshman and 1,500 rising DC college sophomores. The goal is to increase the number of DC students who transition to college and persist into their sophomore year. American University graduate students will reply to the automated text messages and offer personalized support regarding key tasks needed to remain on track for fall matriculation.

Big Award Season for the College of Arts and Sciences

College students receive competitive awards across disciplines | 

It was a remarkable spring season for College of Arts and Science students, who were awarded fellowships from some of the country’s most prestigious programs. 

Students received scholarships and research opportunities from more than a dozen programs including the Fulbright Program, the National Science Foundation, and the Amgen Scholars Program.                       

Mackenzie Devilbiss (BS physics’18) National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship

Devilbiss received the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which recognizes and supports outstanding graduate STEM students who are pursuing research-based graduate degrees. This award allows her to pursue a PhD in particle physics at the University of Michigan. In her application, Devilbiss wrote about her interest in recent high-energy physics experiments that have demonstrated the need to refine the standard model of particle physics.

“Mackenzie is one of the top physics students in her graduating class. Her mathematical skills are excellent, and she is focused, disciplined, and driven,” said Associate Professor and Chair of Physics Nathan Harshman. “She is very independent and takes pride in her ability to master her courses.”

Irena Volkov (BS neuroscience ’19) Amgen Scholars Program

Volkov was accepted into the Amgen Scholars Program, which provides undergraduates the opportunity to participate in a 10-week biotechnology research program at Harvard University and to attend the Amgen Scholars Symposium at University of California, Los Angeles. 

Volkov’s research focuses on the Lungs-on-a-Chip program, which aims to mimic influenza infection to identify and develop new therapies.

“Irena is an outstanding student,” said Mark Laubach, director of AU’s Behavior, Cognition and Neuroscience PhD Program. “She is interested in pursuing a career in the biopharmaceutical industry, and her participation in the highly selective Amgen Scholars Program will help get her started.”

Volkov’s research focuses on the Lungs-on-a-Chip program, which aims to mimic influenza infection to identify and develop new therapies.

“Irena is an outstanding student,” said Mark Laubach, director of AU’s Behavior, Cognition and Neuroscience PhD Program. “She is interested in pursuing a career in the biopharmaceutical industry, and her participation in the highly selective Amgen Scholars Program will help get her started.”

Hannah McNamara (BA sociology ’18) Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship

Fulbright grants are designed to promote mutual understanding between United States citizens and people of other nations. McNamara was awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Malaysia. Her attraction to the topic was rooted in her own experience navigating intersecting identities as a Filipino American.

McNamara’s interest in Malaysia began when she studied its ethnic diversity and identity politics in a School of Education class. Department Chair of Sociology Gay Young taught McNamara when she was a sophomore. “I was impressed by Hannah’s capacity to communicate analysis of gender issues that are global as well as personal,” said Young.

Amy Lau (BA international relations & economics ’18) Rangel Fellowship

Amy Lau was awarded a Rangel Fellowship and will begin graduate school at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Policy program in the fall of 2018. Afterwards, she will have earned a place in the US Foreign Service as a foreign service officer. The program aims to address the issue of minority groups being historically underrepresented in the Foreign Service.

With dual degrees in international studies and economics, Lau was a particularly strong candidate for this award. “Amy is an enormously energetic, smart, and hard-working student,” said Professor of Economics Ivy Broder. “I have taught more than 2,600 undergraduates at American University, and she is one of the most impressive.”

Carly LaRoche (BS environmental science ’18) Fulbright Study Research Program

LaRoche was accepted into the Fulbright Study Research program where she will travel to Indonesia to study forest conservation. Her research focuses on how restored mangrove forests perform ecologically, compared to pristine forests. Following the program, she will start her PhD at the University of Virginia.

“Carly’s successes are the result of bringing to bear her formidable intellect and willingness to do the hard work of getting things done,” said Executive Director of Center for Teaching, Research & Learning, Kiho Kim. While at AU, Carly was also awarded the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-Hollings Undergraduate Scholarship and the Killam Fellowships Program at Mount Allison University in Canada.

Students also received the following awards:

  • Tonia Bell (BA mathematics & economics ’20) Killam Fellowship     
  • Cala Coffman (BA French studies ’21) Fulbright UK Summer Institute
  • Cynthia Cristobal (BA sociology ’19) Gilman Scholarship
  • Melanie Delgado (BA public health ’18) National Institutes of Health Undergraduate Scholarship Program Recipient
  • Belen Flores (BS/BA mathematics & justice and law ’17)
  • Sofia Hinojosa (BA public health ’19) Public Policy & International Affairs Fellowship
  • Cheldina Jean (BS environmental science ’20) National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates
  • Zizhan Luo (BA/BS international studies & environmental science ’19) Udall Scholarship
  • Adam Majeski (BA international studies & public health ’20) Boren Scholarship
  • Andrew Miller (BA public health certificate ’20) Killam Fellowship
  • Rebecca Royer (BS mathematics and economics ’15) National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship
  • Emily Smith (BA K-12 education & musical theatre ’19) Gilman Scholarship
  • Craig Stevens (BA anthropology ’17) Marshall Scholarship & National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship     
  • Ayan Warfa (BA public health ’19) Gilman Scholarship

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