2018 Student Ambassadors

The BTS Student Ambassador Competition was open to US citizens enrolled in grades 8 through 12, and included students from schools across the country. Each participating student had the option to submit an essay or a video on one of four topics. These topics included the historical significance of the Apollo program, a creative solution to bring Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) back into popular culture, and why they are driven to go to space. Each entry demonstrated the student's passion for STEM with incredible levels of intellect and creativity. So much so that process of narrowing down the applicants to the elite members of Group 1 proved to be an extraordinarily difficult task.

Now that the 25 winners have been selected, the Student Ambassadors will begin their mission of promoting the message of BTS, which is to bring STEM and space exploration back into popular culture. They will attend numerous Apollo events and work together to drive our nation towards Mars.

AMANDA SHAYNA AHTECK

Amanda Shayna Ahteck is a student researcher, publication enthusiast, maker, and sci-fi lover who prefers to use her middle name.

When she’s not obsessing over her latest project, Shayna is a senior at Holmdel High School. As a student archivist, she attends school events to photograph and film for YouTube. She avidly competes with her high school’s new Science Olympiad team at the regional and state level. She also currently serves as a representative for the Student Advisory Board and as a school tour guide.

Her publication leadership positions include being the editor-in-chief of the yearbook and editing the school newspaper. She recently co-founded the Holmdel Academic Review, a print and online publication featuring abridged research papers from high school research projects.

In her free time, Shayna works towards research projects. She leads many of her own projects in fields such as computational sociology, wearable electronics, hydroculture plants, and natural polymer engineering. As a lab assistant, she does lab work for student microbiology projects and is a Waksman Student Scholar with skills in DNA analysis and bioinformatics.

In her leisure time, Shayna enjoys baking, bookbinding, 3D printing and modeling, programming, playing Overwatch, robotics, cosplay, and amateur lightsaber dueling. She is the first daughter of Mauritian parents and works to preserve their culture heritage. She cares for a small army of succulents, duckweed, and over two dozen goldfish.

LISA ALEXANDER

I describe myself as an explorer, always seeking new adventures and subjects to conquer. Growing up in a suburb of Houston, the Johnson Space Center was only an hour away. This just happens to be the place where my tale of curiosity begins. Some of my earliest memories include me standing on my tippy toes and peering down at the bright screens of the Mission Control room and the many humid sticky summer days spent on trolley tours. Even as a small child, I was amazed by the vastness of it all.

As I grew up my interest in space and STEM only increased. My curiosity turned into tangible actions. I increased awareness about the many opportunities in the STEM fields in my own school community by heading various student outreach initiatives in the greater Houston area. In addition to my academic endeavors, I participated in the High School Aerospace Scholars program and learned all the essentials of planning a mission to Mars. As I learned about all the new work NASA is doing, my thirst for knowledge grew. All I wanted to do was be a part of the innovations, be a part of the future. This past summer, I interned at the Texas Space Grant Consortium as a member of the Aerospace Engineering team. The hands-on experience I gained through this NASA sponsored program cemented my interest in Aerospace Engineering. As I look to the future, my goal remains to contribute to the amazing research going on at NASA and continue my exploration all the way to space, the final frontier.

THOMAS BAXLEY

I am a sophomore student at Dreyfoos SOA, in West Palm Beach Florida. I am incredibly passionate about science, mathematics, and writing. I feel like I have already learned so much in AP chemistry and AP Calculus! My dream job is to become a neurosurgeon.

I go to a school of the arts, where I serve as my Class Council Vice President for the class of 2021, and I perform theater. I have been in All My Sons and a TYA production. I am a member of the International Thespian Honor Society, where I take part in theater competitions. I am in the process of writing a play to be entered for districts next year.

Another one of my passions is athletics, particularly, cross country and basketball. I hold the varsity team record this season for the 5k in cross country. I have been playing all types of sports, ranging from baseball to lacrosse since I was 6 years old. However, my favorite game was basketball. My sophomore year is my first year to not play on a travel basketball team because I want to transition from travel ball to playing on my varsity team in high school.

I love adventuring. Recently, I visited Key West, where I had the chance to visit US Naval bases, experience the sunset, and go snorkeling. I enjoyed snorkeling with my dad and my brothers so much, that I now plan on getting my Scuba Certification so that I can experience marine-life up close. I would love to free dive, as well.

One of the most interesting things about me is my strange background. My mother is black and my father is white. While my experience was confusing at times, I have learned to use my identity to broaden my perspectives and outlooks on life.

REBECCA BLUM

Becca Blum is a 16-year-old junior at Cranbrook Kingswood Highschool in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan who is passionate about space and astronomy and aspires to be a Mission Specialist on a rocket.

In 2017, she founded a space club at her school called “Beyond Earth,” which inspires students to apply STEM skills to the next wave of space exploration. Becca is currently spreading the club to other schools via a flash drive containing all the content needed to start a club. Students in five different states already have the flash drive and are working to start the club at their own school.

Becca has also attended Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama for the last five years, and she completed Aviation Challenge in the summer of 2017 and Advanced Space Camp in the summer of 2018.  Becca plans to attend PoSSUM Space Academy at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in the Spring of 2019.  In July 2018, she gave a presentation to Michigan’s largest astronomy club on Space Camp and the Kennedy Space Center (https://youtu.be/hMFID-yyzVA) and in August 2018, she was featured on a cable TV and internet program about her experiences.

In addition to her passion for space and astronomy, she plays third base on Varsity Softball where she has won the Coach’s Award and MVP.  She has also received district and state-wide recognition for clarinet.  Becca is an avid member of her school’s Model United Nations team where she represented Canada in the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in the winter of 2018.   She has received the Strickland writing award at her school and two history awards.  She has a 4.2 GPA and is on the honor roll.  In her spare time, Becca loves reading fantasy novels and thinking about ways to promote space to students in her generation.

FAROUK CHARKAS

I, Farouk Charkas, describe myself as a do-er, space fanatic, history nerd and premature politician. I completely am opposed to laziness and procrastination and I hate being able to not do anything about everything. I really appreciate my years in high school since it allowed me to commit to a lot of different opportunities including this one.

I want to see a human on Mars before my kids grow up and so I submitted my submission here. I hated to see Central Cabarrus High School, which was built in the sixties with federal money to beat the Soviets by creating a space-age classroom, fall behind schools in rocketry so I began a really successful Rocketry Club there.

I was raised in Virginia, taking constant trips to Washington D.C. which I sometimes call my second home. I really appreciated the Main Air and Space Museum there and personally consider it better than the Udvar-Hazy museum. I discovered the miraculous and extraordinary achievements of the Apollo program before my freshman year in high school (currently a sophomore.) I became really fascinated with the engineering behind it all and was really surprised that I, and a lot of kids in the nation, grew up with the idea of a man on the moon taken foregranted.

My parents raised me with morals, integrity and trustworthy as my ride-or-die cornerstone. I also really like to talk about politics and am incredibly proud to call myself a native-born American. I've taken a look at all the other entries and am super excited to, if given a chance, converse with these people as I struggle to find people that share a never-ending passion for exploring the unknown like mine. I'm really glad that you guys will consider me, let alone accept me as a proud student ambassador.

JOEY EAMIGH

Nothing about life is boring, so why should those who live it be? This is the philosophy that I live my life by. Keeping myself diverse is a passion or even an obsession. I enjoy having many talents and skills so that I can be as helpful as possible.

I’ve always had a hunger for travel, driven by my parents who believe more can be learned from walking around a city than in a classroom. When I was in 4th grade, my parents took me and my sister out of school to explore Europe for two months. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

I love technology and have always enjoyed messing around with it and learning everything I can. I just recently built my own computer, I have run the lights and sound at my church, and I am a 3D graphic designer for my mom, who is an architect. My job is to put the houses into 3D, so her clients can visualize them. Using my skills for 3D design, I have become an avid 3D printer, creating things from cable holders to model space shuttles. I also have a great appreciation for music in all forms, whether it be listening or making it on the piano.

I have always gotten straight A’s, and I have been a part of National Honor Society, as well as Beta Club. I am a tennis player and enjoy playing the sport with friends and on my school’s team. My best friend and I hosted a charity tennis tournament last year, raising almost $4,000 for kids in Guatemala.

In addition to graphic design, I enjoy displaying my creativity in literature. I have written many things, including a book that I am currently working on editing for publication.

CHRISTOPHER FRANKLIN

My name is Chris, I am 17 years old, a pilot, a Civil Air Patrol Cadet, and proudly a Colorado native. For as long as I can remember, I have always been passionate about aviation and space. I grew up watching my sister Natalie become a professional pilot and I thought that was amazing. I soon realized that it was something I could do; since then I have been following in her footsteps. After my first few flights with her mentor in a small airplane, I was hooked. I have since obtained my pilot’s license through scholarships and the Civil Air Patrol. My professional goals are to become a professional pilot, an aeronautical engineer, a pilot in Air National Guard, and eventually at test pilot for a space company such as SpaceX.

I currently hold qualifications in three different aircraft, have 110 hours total time, and have soloed a glider. The Civil Air Patrol is the Air Force Cadet program I have been a part of for over four years. I have earned the Amelia Earhart Award and have been all over the United States for numerous flight training and leadership training activities. The most recent being the International Air Cadet Exchange where I went to Canada as an ambassador of CAP, aviation, and the United States. It is my involvement with CAP that has largely shaped me into the person I am today. I have been afforded so many aviation and leadership opportunities that I am very grateful for. Flying is my passion and I love sharing it with others. I have been able to do this through teaching aerospace curriculum and rocketry programs through CAP, as well as taking kids on their first flights through the EAA Young Eagles.

LUKE GORMSEN

My family and my faith guide me as I strive to always conduct myself with integrity, to follow the Golden Rule, and to put all my effort and passion into everything I do. Being raised as the youngest of six children, I have had the opportunity to learn from incredible examples in my parents and older siblings.

Since transitioning from being homeschooled in 5th grade, I have continued to realize how invaluable an education not restricted by mandatory hours or location can be. This flexibility has highly motivated me to use it as an opportunity to succeed, and the absence of live teachers has taught me the value of self-motivation, time management, and taking the initiative to be involved in my community. For the past four summers I have volunteered at my church’s summer camp, and often volunteer with the Nashville Rescue Mission. Since freshman year I have maintained a 4.0 GPA, and this year I was named a National Merit Scholar Commended Student. Although I do not attend the school, I was selected to be Team Captain of the Brentwood High School swim team and was named Swimmer of The Year in 2017. After seven years of private study on the violin and participating in many orchestras, I am currently attending Vanderbilt University’s Pre-College music program and am now a part of the Curb Youth Symphony.

Outside of academics and extracurricular activities, I am an enthusiast of the night sky and recently purchased my first high power telescope. After flying with my dad for the first time in his plane this summer, I immediately fell in love with it, and am currently saving to obtain my private pilot’s license.  Looking towards the future, I am excited about choosing a college with plans to study Aerospace Engineering.

LANCE GORTON

First and foremost, I am a cancer survivor. Three and a half years of chemotherapy teaches an individual about prevailing in the face of extreme adversity. During my time fighting leukemia, I lost four friends who did not
win the battle.

I earned my junior black belt in karate during treatment and have recently been promoted to 2nd degree.  I am a NAUI certified SCUBA diver, a snowboarder and a mountain climber.  I have climbed the highest point of
elevation in 23 of the United States.  For the last three months I have been training and in December, I will be running my first half marathon.

I am an avid lover of science and have stayed on the honor roll even during chemotherapy.  I have proficient skills on the telescope and microscope.  I am working on programming my own space-based game and have built several high-end computers.

My parents have taught me that integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching, and that regardless what happens, one must always exhibit indomitable spirit.  I am proud to be a member of the Back To Space team and excited about the opportunities to inspire STEM to other kids around the country.

SOFIA GRAZIANO

Sofia Graziano is a senior at Absegami High School, in Galloway, New Jersey, with plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Astrophysics.  Her interest in Astrophysics began from a summer course she took at Harvard.  That same summer, she completed a Volunteer Leadership Program at Camp Invention, a camp she had attended several years prior and where her passion for STEM ignited.  After working with the campers that week and helping them to develop a love for science, Sofia founded a STEM Outreach Program for her high school that holds monthly STEM Nights at area schools as well as at her own.  Dozens of hands-on STEM activity stations are set up so students and their parents can explore science in a fun, interactive way.  Sofia extended this program to include monthly after-school STEM sessions at The Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City.

Sofia also founded her school’s Math National Honor Society; is Vice-President of her Class; a Cabinet Member of Peer Mediation; a member of both National Honor Society and Spanish National Honor Society; and is an active member of the Computer Science & Math Club, where she tutors peers and competes in local and regional math competitions.

She was selected for the following honors: The Texas Space Grant Consortium NASA Summer Internship Program; NJ Governor’s STEM Scholars program; TEDx Cape May (invited to speak about her STEM Outreach Program); and Stockton University’s “Free Speech vs Hate Speech” Student Panel (invited panelist).

Sofia won the group division of Stockton University’s regional Math Mayhem competition her sophomore year and placed 5th in N.J. and 18th nationally in GirlsGo CyberStart CyberSecurity competition her junior year.

TREY HACKMAN

My name is Trey Hackman and I am a junior at Brownstown Central High School. I describe myself as someone who is interested in many different parts of life. I have always been passionate about aviation and spaceflight, but also enjoy photography, playing the piano, flying RC planes, and participating in sports with my friends.

In my opinion, the more well-rounded you become as an individual, you get more enjoyment out of life. Every day, you should try something new, become something new and develop new friendships.

My favorite subject is Math because it is logical and can be used to solve real-world problems. Lots of kids my age are not sure what they want to do with their life yet. Not me. I want to go to college and study to be an Aerospace Engineer. Growing up in a small rural community is difficult when you are interested in aerospace because there is little opportunity to be around aviation. However, I have engaged myself in hobbies like model aviation to fuel my obsession with flying.

In addition to graphic design, I enjoy displaying my creativity in literature. I have written many things, including a book that I am currently working on editing for publication.

KRYSTAL HORTON

My life is dedicated to exploring space. I have known since I was 6 and I met Sally Ride that I wanted to be involved in the space program. I have worked hard and diligently to achieve my goals.

I have a science blog with 200,000 views, a YouTube channel, I have been to the robotics World Championships, I've won awards at the International Science Fair, I have won national girls in computer programming awards, Broadcom MASTERS, I’ve been an intern for a group that makes Mars Rovers, and an apprentice at Naval Surface Warfare Center.

At home, I’ve learned to weld, solder, program Arduinos, prototype with Raspberry Pis, do Computer Aided Design, 3D print, build rockets, make chemical rocket engines, build go-karts, and much more.  In school, I have taken more than 15 college courses and a half dozen AP courses and I have never received a grade below an “A”. I collect photos with astronauts and astronaut autographs.  I have photos with Buzz Aldrin, Charlie Duke, Al Worden, and at least a dozen others.

I know what I want to do and I have dedicated my life to doing it.  I plan to attend MIT where I will major in Aerospace Engineering and work for NASA or one of its contractors (Boeing, Lockheed, SpaceX).

KASHAN HUSSAIN

I am a guy who wants to be remembered by people. Not in a bad way, like doing something dumb and rude, but rather by doing things that inspire others and making people happy. As Junior Class President at my school, I help out my underclassmen around the school, doesn't have to be big, even saying hi in the hallways. I familiarize myself with the upperclassmen and try to learn from them as much as I can. I crack out jokes so that the people around me can get a good laugh. Even when someone is having a bad day, I make sure to direct it towards them so they can cheer up, but at the same time make it so that everyone else can laugh along too.

I do quite a few extracurricular activities also, I have been in Robotics for the past 4 years, along with playing Soccer and helping my school in ASB. Through Robotics, I engage in using STEM in asking questions, making a robot that can solve problems, and then competing against other robots from around the state in tournaments. I am also a Seafair Ambassador. Seafair runs many large events in the Greater Seattle areas, such as parades through downtown (I actually got to be in one) and boat races on the waterfront.

I also enjoy traveling as I have gone to places such as Norway and Dubai.

Lastly, space has been an interest of mine since I was 5 years old. You can thank Star Wars for that! Ever since I have intrigued and wish to further my love for it even beyond through Back to Space!

COURTNEY KANG

I am a hard-working student-athlete with a strong passion for my community. I serve on the student council as Junior class president and as a member of the National Honor Society at the Ursuline Academy of Dallas. Ursuline Academy is an independent Catholic college preparatory high school for girls with a distinguished tradition of academic excellence, innovation and service. As class president, I lead our student council team to organize various school events and activities.

I am interested in pursuing my academics in science and engineering. I was introduced to Engineering because my brother received his bachelor’s in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. During my freshman year, I received the Physics award. I am enrolled in Calculus A Honors and Engineering classes this semester and completed computer programming class last year.

I also play golf competitively in State and National tournaments. I have 1.4 USGA golf handicap and ranked 91st (21st among the class of 2020) in Texas, and I hope to play golf in College. One of the highlights was to lead my school varsity golf team to win the state championship by placing 5th place individually in 2018.

I was the recipient of Marilyn Shannon Award in 2016 for exemplifying the values of my middle school, St. Rita, where I still serve altar server on Sunday masses. I volunteer by tutoring at the Walnut Hill Elementary school and serve food to the homeless at Dallas Life and other opportunities to serve my community.

As a daughter of immigrant parents from South Korea, I learned strong work ethics and means to overcome challenges.  I enjoy going to High School football games on Friday nights and cheering for my favorite team, Green Bay Packers on Sundays. I am hoping for an opportunity as an ambassador for Back to Space to bring inspiration to my sisters at Ursuline to get involved in STEM and Aerospace.

PAIGE KOOPMEINERS

I am a current sophomore student and athlete at my STEM school district high school. My passions are my studies and my sports. Challenging myself in both areas and a positive goal-oriented approach is my trademark.

As a member of my school’s student body, I am as active as possible. I am currently challenging myself in AP Biology as well as learning new skills in my second year of sign language.

Also, I am a member of my high schools Track and Field team, Cross Country team, a member and competitor of US Figure Skating Association and my skating club. I also participate in my schools LIVE group, our awesome student choir, and yearbook staff.

And an additional new and exciting moment: my first job: skate school assistant for the City of Edina commencing with my November birthday!

I am an outgoing person and greatly enjoy meeting and working with a diverse group of people.

JULIANNA LENINGTON

Hi! My name is Julianna Lenington, and I’m a freshman at Parish Episcopal School in Dallas, Texas. I'm a Back to Space Student Ambassador Liaison, and I’m very excited to be part of this project! My passions also include playing volleyball, musical theater, scuba diving, and traveling. I’m a member of a volunteer organization called the National Charity League (NCL), where I’m able to give back to my community and help others, and currently serve as the Vice President of Programs for my chapter. I’m also an ambassador at my high school, where I give tours to prospective families, answer questions, and share my story. I’m finding that this experience is helping me with my BTS liaison duties, answering student ambassador questions and helping them feel a part of the Back To Space community. In addition, my role includes helping with social media and giving a more personal glimpse into the student ambassadors' lives. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be part of this once-in-a-lifetime project!

ANNA MACLENNAN

For almost my entire life, I have been a musician. I began playing the violin when I was 4½ years old and added the clarinet when I was ten. Through hours upon hours of practice, I have become a member of the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra as well as the Cincinnati Youth Wind Ensemble. I also play in several honors groups throughout the year and am a section leader for my district’s marching band. I play music because I truly love it. Over the years, it has instilled in me the value of discipline and hard work.

In addition to improving upon skills I already have, I love to learn new things. I recently attended a workshop on coding, and I have been independently learning to code ever since.

I also love geography and travel. I hope to travel to at least thirty countries by the time I am thirty years old. I love geography trivia and enjoyed teaching myself all of the world capitals for my school’s Academic Quiz Team. As I have grown older, my passion for travel and languages has translated into a passion for global issues. I have always been taught by my family that if you see something wrong in the world, it is up to you to change it. With this mindset, I have spent time volunteering at animal shelters, started a petition on change.org, and given a talk to elementary-age children about STEM.

I am a firm believer that virtually anything is possible with enough passion and determination. Through my experiences in STEM, music, and global issues, I have learned never to back down in the face of a challenge. I love using my voice to inspire youth, and my dream is to one-day effect real, lasting change in the world.

KATHERINE MULRY

I’m the girl who grew up to the sound of airplanes over my house, and whose dad could identify each one.

I’m the girl who went to a summer space camp at a museum where there were drawings of planets on the floor, and who would jump between them, dreaming of doing the same of real life.

I’m the girl who decided to be an astronaut at seven but then was too scared of the danger to keep dreaming.

I’m the girl who changed her mind.

I’m dedicated. I’m curious. I’m passionate.

After learning the stories of the Apollo program as a freshman, I found that I couldn’t get space out of my mind. I wasn’t sure that I was capable of being an engineer and astronaut, and the enormity of my dream terrified me, but it kept calling to me.

So I threw myself into studying. If our country could go to the moon, could I not learn science and math? Could I not reach for the stars?

I studied hard for chemistry sophomore year and joined a science quiz team. Junior year, my AP physics teacher struggled to convey concepts; I taught myself and created a club to teach my classmates.

I applied for two NASA internships and was accepted to both, and I worked hard there, too. I asked questions, went deeper to discover, and persisted in the difficult work.

I’ve never felt so exhausted, and I’ve never felt so alive.

I’m the girl who runs cross country, plays cross country, volunteers with her church, and is third in her class.

I’m the girl with stars in her eyes, the girl who dreams of going to space. The girl who is willing to work to get there.

I’m the girl who wants to be an astronaut.

AUTUMN PEPPER RHODES

I am a leader. I have served in leadership roles at the National Junior Honor Society, the International Junior Thespian Society, and the Science Textbook Committee for my school district.  Over time, I have learned that being an effective leader is more about listening, delegating and mentoring and being the glue that drives critical success.

I am an entertainer. I have spent most of my life on the stage as an actor, musician and singer.  I have danced and cheered competitively, play the French horn and trumpet, and as a thespian I have held key roles in “Hairspray,” and “Chasing Charming.” I have served on Media Teams and in Public Affairs because I am often enthusiastic about what I am presenting.

I am a risk-taker. Goals and dreams can only be achieved if you are willing to work for them, to step outside your boundaries and reach for them. Failure is just part of the journey. The rewards are worth it!

I am service-oriented. Everyone at some point needs help. I have a brother who has multiple disabilities and it has affected our family in numerous ways. I truly understand the meaning of “difficult times.” I find ways to give back through donations, teaching, tutoring, mentoring and inspiring preschoolers and elementary students.

I am a current and future aviator. My true passion is flying. I volunteer with my local EAA organization and mentor youth on aviation. I never turn down a chance to fly and hope to have my pilot’s license before my driver’s license!

I am STEM oriented. If the project involves rockets, engineering, experiments or space, I am all in!

I am headed towards space. I believe we will go back to the moon and to Mars in my lifetime. Space Stations and future space colonies are possible. I cannot wait to be a part of this awesome journey to explore our solar system!

ISABELLA ROBERTS

My name is Bella, I’m sixteen years old, and I have wanted to go to space for nine years.  I was born in Sint Maarten while my dad was in medical school; but, I’ve lived in America most of my life.  I decided I wanted to be an astronaut in second grade; since then, I have studied, met former astronauts, and attended multiple science camps, including: zoology camps, robotics camp at Stanford, engineering camp at the University of Dayton, and I have attended Space Camp seven times.  In my free time, I enjoy singing, acting, and dancing and have been doing all three since I was two. I also campaign for my mom, who is running for county commissioner of our county.  I am currently Vice President of my drama club and hope to be president next year as well as run for office in other clubs.  When I was younger, I had a hard time with diction and pronunciation but now I can sing and act in front of crowds and I think that’s pretty cool.  My family travels frequently, which has nurtured my love of different cultures. I would describe myself as goofy and energetic, but equally focused and dedicated.  Something I pride myself on is my willingness and eagerness to advocate for causes and beliefs I stand for. I also pride myself on being a compassionate person who stands up for others and also as a good and loyal friend.  Academically speaking, I’ve been on the honor roll my whole life. I have also been in advanced science classes ever since as I was able to be.  I’m an avid lover of STEM, robotics, astronomy, and also sharing my passion for those things with friends, family, and teachers.

AUDREY SCOTT

My name is Audrey Scott, and I have a profound passion for communications and science – especially space.

I have spent the better part of my academic career pushing my boundaries with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, while also working hard as a professional actor. In 2009, I was cast in Secretariat, which launched an unexpected career. Fast-forward to 2018, and I am using my talents and skills honed as a professional actor to effectively communicate STEM-related fields – not only to children but to anyone who will listen to me. My love of STEM led me to contribute over 300 volunteer hours this past summer in the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Ecoteen program. There, I worked with “campers” from ages six to twelve in various STEM initiatives. From an academic perspective, I am self-driven and work incredibly hard in my studies, opting to challenge myself beyond the normal high school experience, so much so that I studied Materials Science and Engineering this past summer at Tulane University, and I am enrolled in Astronomy for one of my dual credit courses this year.

When people see me, they often are disarmed  – no one oft thinks that a blonde-headed actress could be someone who excels in math and science while also having the ability to communicate. I want to break down those barriers – not just gender, but bias – and let every single child know that they can do this, and the sky is, literally, not the limit. I welcome the opportunity to help advance the mission of Back to Space and play my part in welcoming the dawn of a new age for humanity.

GAVIN SYAS

I was born in Beaumont, Texas on December 22, 2004, the same year the U.S. launched four science spacecraft.  Growing up, I inherited my father’s love for the vast science fiction world of "Star Wars".  The movie saga and series ignited my passion for science and space exploration.

During the early years of my life journey, I was an active, quiet, knowledge-loving, shy, and curious young boy.  In my elementary school, I had the highest average in math and science.  In middle school, I’ve had the highest Grade Point Average (GPA) for the last two years and plan on achieving that position again this year.  I strive for academic excellence.  I have been on the all “A” honor roll my entire academic career.

In my free time, I love participating in my community theatre. I have been in multiple plays, such as, “Aladdin”, “Scrooge”, and “High School Musical”.  I like viewing science shows such as "Outrageous Acts of Science" on "YouTube".  I also enjoy playing competitive games with my family, reading fascinating books, and watching breathtaking movies.

I’ve played soccer, baseball, and I’m on the swim team.  When I was younger, I had severe asthma, but that didn’t stop my quest.  My mother encouraged me to join the swim team at a young age to build up my lungs and it made me stronger.  I am a 3rd Degree Level 1 Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do martial arts.

I have participated in many school activities, including Chess Club; I placed first in a UIL competition in chess, Texas Math and Science Coaches Association (TMSCA); placing eighth in calculator twice, Drama Club; I took part in a school production called “The 9 Worst Breakups of All Time”, Student Council, and NJHS, to name a few.

PHOEBE WALL

I am an aspiring astronaut and aerospace engineer determined to someday set foot on Mars and explore the planet.

My aerospace achievements include Space Camp Advanced Academy and the Elite program, Boeing scholarship to Embry Riddle’s aerospace engineering summer program, a NASA internship, Washington Aerospace Scholars (college aerospace coursework), the William E. Boeing Jr. Collaboration Award from my WAS internship where I was also the Point of Contact for my team, discovering a main-belt asteroid, and conducting microgravity fluid physics research through NASA which I present at national conferences to advance spacecraft technology.

But those are just achievements.  As an individual, I am the type who comes to school in the morning with a smile on my face and a question to contribute to each class. I am adventurous and passionate about science. I love cats, and I even have been the midwife to over 30 kittens!  I also love to knit, and I knit mathematical objects like Mobius Strips and Klein Bottles.  In my free time, you can always find me exploring new trails on my bike, singing, acting, playing piano, or playing soccer. I am obsessed with seals - to the point of knowing every species’ scientific name – and have volunteered over 500 hours at the Seattle Aquarium. I am frequently praised for my ability to inspire a team, positive attitude, and grit.  I frequently challenge myself to try new things, whether it be a new food or the free-fall inducing ride at Space Camp.  In the classroom I am a strong student, taking some of the hardest coursework my school offers while maintaining a 4.0 GPA.  I am also in the process of earning my Girl Scout Gold Award (equivalent to Eagle Scouts)!  But most importantly, I am curious and passionate about space exploration!

Photo Credit: Meili Zhang

CLEMENT WHITAKER

My name is Clement Whitaker  I am a homeschooled Floridian with a passion for history, a fascination with space, a love of a job well done, and a streak of mischief for good measure.  My interests and hobbies are space exploration, flying, volleyball, surfing, guns, history, business, and farming.  My current goals are: go to space, earn a business degree, earn my commercial pilot licenses, fly for either the airlines or the military, and retire to a small farm (either here or on Mars).  In 2011, I was given a chance to attend Space Camp, in Huntsville Alabama, with my cousin for a week and complete the aviation challenge.  Ever since then I have determined that I would fly and someday make it to space.  Currently, I am a dual enrolment student at my local state college in hopes of graduating a year early.  I hope this gives you a little insight into my life. Thank you so much for this opportunity to realize my dreams.

MARYJANE WHITAKER

My name is MaryJane Whitaker, although I also go by Scout, and I am a 15-year-old Florida Girl—which means I kayak, snorkel, paddle board, surf, and play volleyball. Although I love the sciences—I was awarded the Best of Class in my Computer Science Class (Java) and won the Biology Award this past year-- I also love the arts.  I play the cello and piano and have received The Legacy Foundation Scholarship for three years.  I also have received the Grace Notes Music Foundation Scholarship, the Mikayla Joy Foundation Scholarship, and have been awarded a “Superior” in Solo and Ensemble contest here in Florida.  I play in three orchestras—Jupiter Academy of Music, Youth Orchestra of Palm Beach County, and Jupiter High School Orchestra.  I also enjoy photography—not just being behind the camera, but also as a model.  I believe that a Student Ambassador for Back to Space should not only be comfortable in a lab, but also on a stage.  A true ambassador is one that can bridge gaps between people, generations, cultures, and academic disciplines. I hope after reading my essay you will see a Florida Girl who is Space Bound.

MISSION CONTROL

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