Long hours in the lab interrupted only by the occasional dance break paid off when an OU biomedical engineering senior won a national scholarship for her research.
Mulan Tang, alongside former OU astrophysics and math senior Cora DeFrancesco, won the Astronaut Scholarship — an annual award given to over 60 college students studying science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
The scholarship was awarded in summer 2022, Tang said and helped provide both recipients with more funding to continue the research they love. In Tang’s case, this was her research on regenerative therapies. In DeFrancesco’s, it was her studies about black holes.
Tang wrote in an email to OU Daily that her scholarship was valued at $15,000, but it was considered an “overaward” under federal guidelines and she received $6,000.
“It mainly helps me focus my time on research and classes,” Tang wrote. “It also helps give me financial security for future graduate/med school programs.”
DeFrancesco was awarded $15,000 split evenly between the fall and spring semesters. She wrote that it helped with school and living expenses, and also gave her the funding to quit tutoring, so she could focus more on research.
Though their work paid off, both recipients reflected on the challenges they had to face in their fields, especially as women in STEM.
Tang said she grew up thinking men were naturally better at things like math and science.
“It does make you feel a bit smaller asking questions like, ‘This might be a dumb question,’ or (you start) kind of assuming this smaller stance,” Tang said. “It’s sometimes weird to ask for help or to struggle in front of this male-dominated space.”
DeFrancesco, who is engaged, said she’s encountered people wondering if she will halt her research for her new husband.
“My fiancé never got a reaction like that,” DeFrancesco said. “It just stopped at, ‘Oh, congratulations. Let's go get a beer.’ I have had to push back against that (by saying), ‘No, wait a minute. Cora’s getting married, not giving up on her professional aspirations. Those are different conversations.’”
Despite these challenges, neither woman plans to halt their pursuit of knowledge in their field.
“I have always loved space, for what one might say (are) naive reasons,” DeFrancesco said. “The stars are pretty and I think black holes are cool. Being an astrophysicist is just the coolest thing that I could think of doing.”
Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, DeFrancesco said it was her dream to be an “astronaut farmer ballerina.” Once she became an adult, she settled for astrophysics. Now, she is working on a master's degree in electrical and computer engineering.
DeFrancesco said while applying for the scholarship, one of the challenges was summing up her research in one page. DeFrancesco submitted her research on black holes, specifically a type of active galactic nuclei called quasars.
Active galactic nuclei are the central supermassive black hole of galaxies actively accreting matter, DeFrancesco said. The quasar acts as a telescope, allowing scientists to study what exactly is happening inside black holes, a process that has not yet been done to this extent.
“It takes a while and it hasn't been done very many times before, and certainly not to this level of detail,” DeFrancesco said. “In our group, you know, there are other people who have stared at these sources in the X-Ray band before but they haven't been able to stare as long or as many times as we have.”
Jay McDaniel, an associate professor in electrical and computer engineering and master's thesis committee chair for DeFrancesco, wrote in an email to OU Daily that though he was not present while DeFrancesco did the research that won her the scholarship, working with her is “inspirational.”
“Based upon my experience with Cora, she is an inquisitive, dedicated, and out-of-the-box thinking student,” McDaniel wrote. “Cora always has a positive attitude, which also makes her a great team member and an absolute pleasure to come to the office and work with everyday.”
Tang said she applied for the scholarship per the suggestion of John Clegg, an OU assistant professor in biomedical engineering. Her passion for STEM goes all the way back to elementary science fairs.
“I remember winning one over like a very basic strawberry DNA extraction experiment,” Tang said. “That kind of led me to this loophole of like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Me as, like, a little fifth grader learning about this DNA and learning that you can actually edit it.”
In her application, Tang submitted her research on regenerative therapies, specifically engineering materials to have a specific response in the body acting as a “very special Band-Aid” that helps improve the quality of life for patients with neurological or cardiovascular diseases.
Tang hopes her research will intersect with the growing technology in Oklahoma City and in OU Health research programs to focus on helping as many people as possible, especially with common ailments like strokes and brain diseases.
Clegg said he recommended Tang for the scholarship not only for her successful research, but also her leadership capabilities. Tang said she has held leadership roles including leading groups in Camp Crimson and as president of the OU Biomedical Engineering Society.
“I felt like she was the right student to nominate because she was really poised with this high level of academic achievement, this clear career goal and interest, and the past research experience to meet the goals of the scholarship foundation, which is to award these folks who are going to change the world,” Clegg said.
Following their success in their own fields, both recipients said they have learned from the challenges they faced in both classes and working with other researchers.
DeFrancesco said younger students pursuing research should know it is okay to remove themselves from a lab that does not work for them.
“What I learned was that personalities do matter,” DeFrancesco said. “Sometimes scientists can fall into the trap of (thinking) everything in life is objective. There is a truth. Things are either good or bad, and science is good. What I had to learn from that was no, the science can be good and each individual person can be a wonderful person. But group dynamics actually have an impact and you have to work together.”
McDaniel wrote he believes DeFrancisco is a true leader among her peers.
“She is a role model in my research group who is looked up to by undergraduates and equally respected by more experienced researchers, including those throughout the Advanced Radar Research Center,” McDaniel wrote. “There is absolutely no doubt that she is a future leader."
Tang said over her time at OU, she struggled to prioritize with everything she wanted to do. She said she struggled with imposter syndrome in her classes, and the best way around it was to keep meeting personal goals.
“When it comes down to it, it's your own individual path,” Tang said. “Only you can set your own standards. At some point you kind of just block it out and you honestly don't really have time to care in that way anymore.”
Clegg said Tang takes independent ownership of her work by being the one to suggest the next experiment and implement it in the lab, an aspect of a great researcher.
Ultimately, in any STEM class, Tang said it’s important to use every opportunity one can to learn.
“It’s weird to ask for help or to struggle in front of this male-dominated space,” Tang said. “Asking for help, even having any struggle and admitting it, is a higher level of maturity and will ultimately help you, even if you're struggling and you're comparing yourself to this general bigger population.”
Applications for the 2023 Astronaut Scholar Class are now being accepted. Interested students should see a faculty member on how to apply.
This story was edited by Alexia Aston, Karoline Leonard and Jazz Wolfe. Nikkie Aisha and Teegan Smith copy edited this story.
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