Nandita Kumari, a graduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Geosciences, has been awarded an Amelia Earhart Fellowship from Zonta International. The fellowships are available to women pursuing doctoral degrees who demonstrate a superior academic record conducting research applied to aerospace engineering or space sciences.
Kumari was recognized for her academic record and prior work including research dedicated to exploring the moon’s surface. Her findings helped identify potential landing sites for NASA’s Artemis mission in November 2022.
Kumari said the $10,000 award will help her continue research focused on exploring the composition of the moon and other planetary bodies.
“This is my own PhD project where we are using a machine learning technique to estimate the composition of planetary surfaces,” she said. “Right now I’m trying it for a feature estimation on the moon, but it can be transferable to other things. So this is to build a technique I can then apply it to different problems.”
Kumari said she’s been working on this project for a couple of years. Though her findings will ultimately apply to any planetary surface, Kumari is currently focusing on the moon.
“I’m currently applying my method to the moon because I have access to that data and I’m more aware and confident using lunar data because that’s what my PhD project is on,” she said. “But the technique itself is very much applicable to any other types of surfaces or bodies so it can be transferred easily. Building the technique will take time, but eventually the applications are going to be for any planetary surface.”
Globally, women make up around 25 percent of the workforce in the aerospace industry. Zonta International offers the Amelia Earhart Fellowship to support its mission of helping women have access to all resources and are equally represented in decision-making positions.
The Amelia Earhart Fellowship was created in 1938 to honor the first woman to fly a solo transatlantic flight, a feat accomplished in 1932. Earhart disappeared in 1937 while attempting to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, a mystery that remains captivating more than 85 years later. Earhart was also one of the first aviators to promote commercial air travel, wrote best-selling books about her flying experiences, and was instrumental in the formation of The Ninety-Nines, an organization for female pilots.
The $10,000 Fellowship is awarded annually to up to 30 women around the world. Since the program’s inception in 1938, Zonta has awarded more than 1,700 Amelia Earhart Fellowships to women in 77 countries. Earhart Fellows have gone on to become astronauts, aerospace engineers, astronomers, professors, geologists, business owners, heads of companies, and even a Secretary of the U.S. Air Force.
Tim Glotch, a professor in the Department of Geosciences and Kumari’s mentor, feels she is more than capable of following in the footsteps of the trailblazing women that were honored before her.
“Nandita is highly deserving of the Amelia Earhart Fellowship,” said Glotch. “Her work is pushing the boundaries of lunar remote sensing data analysis using machine learning and advanced statistical approaches. She’s also a great citizen in our lab group, always willing to help or collaborate with other students who are thinking about how to employ machine learning techniques in their own work.”
As for the future, Kumari said a typical career path would have her continuing her research or becoming a professor, though she is still unsure of where the path will lead after her expected graduation in May ’24. For now, she’d like to encourage fellow STEM women to learn more about the Earhart Fellowship.
“This grant is open to women in space science and engineering, which means a lot of astrophysics/planetary science/engineering students can apply for it as well,” she said. “I don’t think we have enough applicants from our university. People should be made aware of it. It’s competitive because only 30 are awarded internationally, but there’s no reason not to apply.”
— Robert Emproto