USC Viterbi School of Engineering student Nishita Deka received a $10,000 Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF) scholarship on Sept. 13, presented to her by astronaut Walt Cunningham.
Deka, a 21-year-old senior in electrical engineering from San Diego, is a standout student who works in an optics laboratory at USC conducting experiments with microlaser devices. She is also interested in nanotechnology. The Astronaut Scholarship that she received is the largest STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) merit award given in the United States.
“It’s nice because it confirms that there are people who support the sciences,” Deka said. “It’s nice to know that there are people out there who support students like me.”
Established in 1984 as the Mercury Seven Foundation, ASF awards 28 scholarships annually, each worth $10,000, for the best and brightest students pursuing STEM degrees. To date, the foundation has awarded nearly $3.5 million in scholarships to deserving students nationwide.
Apollo 7 astronaut Cunningham presented the award to Deka at a ceremony in the Taper Hall of Humanities. Cunningham was a Lunar Module pilot on the first manned Apollo mission in 1968.
“Nishita has demonstrated quality leadership in electrical engineering at the University of Southern California,” Cunningham said. “She embodies the top characteristics of an Astronaut Scholar: intelligent, perseverant and driven to lead the path toward the advancement of scientific knowledge and technology. I’m proud to have the opportunity to present this award to such a worthy recipient at USC.”
After presenting Deka with a giant check for $10,000, Cunningham gave a lecture to the audience about his career as an astronaut and his trip into space with the Apollo mission.
“It was a really cool experience to actually meet an astronaut,” Deka said.
Andrea Armani, assistant professor at USC Viterbi, nominated Deka for the award. Deka has worked in Armani’s lab for two years and credits her as a key influence in her academic career.
As the fall semester continues, Deka plans to apply to graduate schools to pursue a doctorate in electrical engineering — a broadly applicable skill that can open countless doors for her, she said.
“It’s used everywhere. It gives me a lot of options,” she said.
But for now, Deka is just working hard and enjoying her final year as an undergraduate.