Student Spotlight: Ali Wilkening receives award from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation

Ali Wilkening, a rising junior in the College of Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, has won the prestigious Astronaut Scholarship through the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF). The award is among the largest merit- based monetary scholarships awarded to undergraduates; Astronaut Scholars receive up to $10,000 to support their undergraduate studies.

Wilkening is majoring in biology with a focus in genomics and computational biology. She is also pursuing computer science and chemistry minors.

Astronaut Scholarships are awarded to rising juniors or seniors studying science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) with an interest in pursuing research as a career. This year ASF awarded scholarships to 50 students from 36 different universities.

Joe Jez, professor and chair of the Department of Biology, nominated Wilkening for the award.

"Ali is the type of adventurous, creative, and broadly engaged student these scholarships aim to support.  It is not just about the science, of which Ali thinks broadly from genetics to the environment, but also about a student's passion for discovery and their potential to become leaders," said Jez.

Wilkening is passionate about using genetics as a tool to study evolution. She has been working in Ting Wang’s lab in the Department of Genetics for the past year studying the differentiation and development of closely related pigment cells in zebrafish.  She has also worked in the Eric Hayden lab at Boise State University studying the evolutionary interactions between deer gut micobiota and the sagebrush they eat. She plans to apply to graduate school to study evolutionary developmental biology after receiving her bachelor’s degree from Washington University.

“Although Ali is just starting her undergraduate career, she is already showing the traits of a successful young researcher - she is self-motivated, eager to learn, persistent, broadly interested in science, and excited about pursuing a Ph.D. in the future.  She understands the value of science, but also of how being part of a group can enrich her experience and that of others,” said Jez.

She channels that motivation, eagerness, and love for science into everything she does, including in her pursuit of her career goals.  “I aspire to become a professor who unearths the mysteries hidden in the genome,” said Wilkening.

The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation was created by the Mercury Seven – NASA’s first astronauts.  The mission of the non-profit is to support the brightest scholars in STEM and to prepare them to become leaders in technology.

Wilkening and the other Astronaut Scholars will be honored for their achievement at the 2018 Innovators Gala on August 25th in Washington DC. --By Marta Wegorzewska