By Sherry DiBari

Although Catherine­ Fischer applied for a highly competitive fellowship working in the aerospace industry, she was certain she wouldn't be selected.

The competition was tough. Only 51 students would be chosen from more than 1,000 applications, and no student had ever been accepted from a Virginia university.

After making it through the first few rounds and an intensive interview process, Fischer was still surprised when she was offered the Brooke Owens Fellowship.

"I'm still in disbelief about the whole thing," she said. "The kid in me is doing backflips every time I think about it!"

Fischer, who will graduate from Old Dominion University's mechanical engineering technology program in December, will spend 12 weeks as a strategic operations intern at Ball Aerospace in Washington, D.C.

The Brooke Owens Fellowship is named after space industry pioneer and accomplished pilot Dawn Brooke Owens (1980-2016). The fellowship provides paid internships and executive mentorships for undergraduate females and gender minorities in aerospace disciplines.

Fischer, a Springfield Center, New York, resident, already had a master's degree in teaching and experience in the field before heading back to school as a distance-learning student.

"I was drawn to ODU's impressive academic rankings, research projects taken on by departmental professors and accessibility for distance-learning students," she said.

She found one professor, Orlando Ayala, particularly motivational.

"Dr. Ayala has been absolutely integral to my success so far," Fischer said. "He has gone above and beyond in ensuring my academic success in my coursework, as well as partnering with me to complete my senior design project.

"His guidance, advice and encouragement has pushed me to think more critically about my designs, which has led to an enriching experience at the University."

Ayala, associate professor in the Department of Engineering Technology, was in turn complimentary about Fischer.

"Catherine is a great student and a much better human being," he said. "She is passionate about engineering, and this passion makes our teaching job effortless."

Ayala noted that Fischer is determined to use her engineering knowledge to protect our planet and help humankind.

"We are currently working on her senior design project in which we are trying to make 3D-printed synthetic soil that will allow better control of nutrient supplements to the roots of plants while minimizing water use and energy consumption," he said.

"There is no doubt that, when successful, the idea will eventually help with food production problems in the world and spin off ideas to grow plants in outer space," he added.

Fischer, who jokes that she is on "career 2.0," is taking a different approach this time.

"I used to define myself by my career, and I no longer believe that is sustainable," she said. "Now I am trying to think of my future as the pursuit of my interests, rather than what I'm doing for work."

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