Astronaut scholarship honors triple major Arianna Krinos for cross-discipline research
Arianna Krinos, a junior triple majoring in biological sciences, computer science, and computational modeling and data analytics, grew up in Tampa, Florida, where she could watch Space Shuttle launches — far off in the distance — while standing in the front yard of her family’s house.
Now, she’ll be presented with an Astronaut Scholarship Foundation award worth $10,000 on Thursday, Oct. 19, by NASA astronaut Kathryn Thornton, who will follow the awards presentation with a guest lecture open to the public.
The presentation and lecture take place at 7 p.m. at Holtzman Alumni Hall and are sponsored by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, scholarship sponsor Des Welch in honor of his late wife, and the Virginia Tech Women in the Sciences. The lecture event is free and open to the public.
Krinos is the first and only student at Virginia Tech to receive the scholarship. Her undergraduate research focuses on the intersection of computer science and biological science through the use of computer models and quantitative tools, such as bioinformatics and data analytics to describe and predict changes in freshwater ecosystems.
Krinos became involved in the research during her sophomore year under the direction of Cayelan Carey, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, part of the College of Science (as is the computational modeling and data analytics program). The Department of Computer Science is part of the College of Engineering.
“We seek to understand combined effects of climate and land use change on lake water quality, including temperature profiles, phytoplankton distributions, and nutrient dynamics, alongside other factors,” Krinos said.
Using distributed computing software known as GRAPLEr, developed specifically for tracking lake ecosystems, she is providing a better understanding of interconnected drivers of lake conditions to Carey’s lab. “More recently, I have been working on integrating data analysis with forecasting and modeling techniques,” added Krinos.
Krinos also has participated in Research Experience for Undergraduates at the University of North Florida and has worked in the lab of Lisa Belden, a professor of biological sciences at Virginia Tech. In Belden’s lab, Krinos uses her computational modeling background to conduct ecological research connecting the likely role of fungal pathogens to the decline of global amphibian populations.
“I have always had an interest in protecting the environment, which was certainly prompted by growing up in Tampa and experiencing both incredible natural places and significant environmental degradation in my hometown,” Krinos said.
After graduation, Krinos plans on pursuing a doctorate in limnology or oceanography with a biological and computational emphasis. “I am drawn to the integrated aquatic sciences because of how easily many different fields of science are applied to aquatic ecosystems,” she said.
Upon acquiring her degrees, Krinos intends to pursue a career in research that will make an impact on environmental management and biological understanding and also will allow her to apply computational and analytical skills to ecology.
Krinos said courses in computational modeling and data analytics, part of the College of Science’s Academy of Integrated Science, have been vital to her research.
“These courses are equipping me well for upcoming challenges in the field of ecology, to include higher-quality ecological forecasts and the need for increasingly computationally complex models,” Krinos said. “Classes I am taking this semester in statistics and mathematical modeling are directly applicable to my research and future goals, and it is exciting to see my courses in action in real time when they are useful to my research.”
Krinos was nominated for the scholarship by Belden and Carey. According to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation website, the goal of the scholarship is to “aid the United States in retaining its world leadership in technology and innovation by supporting the very best and brightest scholars in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” This far, $4 million in scholarships have been awarded since 1984. The foundation was started more than 30 years ago by members of the famed Mercury 7 team.
“Arianna is a rare student in that she has pursued a diverse curriculum across multiple disciplines — biology, computer science, engineering, mathematics, and chemistry — to further her ability to do ecological research,” said Carey. “The skills that Arianna is developing at the interface of these disciplines are exactly the type of skills needed to be successful in this new era of big data in ecology.”
Added Belden, “She is part of a new generation of truly interdisciplinary scholars and thinkers who are going to do great things to advance environmental sustainability in this rapidly changing world.”
Krinos described herself as a lifelong fan of space, left in awe from visiting the Kennedy Space Center at an early age. Fittingly, the scholarship is given in honor of the late Danniella Mellissa Muheim by her husband, Des Welch.
Muheim was an alumna of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering, where she earned a master’s degree engineering mechanics, and completed all work for her Ph.D. in the same field except for a dissertation defense. She later worked at NASA Langley Research Center as a structures analyst, and then NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where she worked on the James Webb Space Telescope. During her career, Muheim greatly supported women in STEM efforts and held a special place in her heart for Virginia Tech.
Muheim died on Oct. 16, 2015, and the awarding of this scholarship to Krinos marks the second anniversary plus three days.
“I am honored to receive the award, and view it as an outstanding opportunity to move forward with my goals in research,” Krinos said. “I have been introduced to so many interesting people through the scholarship and the larger Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and feel very fortunate to be a part of such an excellent community.”
Thornton, the NASA astronaut who will speak Thursday, is a veteran of four space flights. She flew on STS-33 (Discovery) in 1989, STS-49 in 1992 and STS-61 in 1993 (both Endeavour) and STS-73 (Columbia) in 1995, logging more than 975 hours in space. Since 1996, she has been a member of the engineering faculty at the University of Virginia.
Written by Jessie Rogers, of Suffolk, Virginia, a senior in the Department of English, part of the College Liberal Arts and Human Sciences