Published: Dec. 3, 2019

Recent graduate Zeena Nisar is a member of the 2020–21 class of Schwarzman Scholars and the first CU Boulder alumna to win the prestigious scholarship, which prepares graduate students for global leadership roles.

Nisar, a Norlin Scholar from Colorado Springs, is teaching English at the International University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan on a Fulbright grant. In May, she graduated with bachelor’s degrees in English and molecular, cellular and developmental biology.

Through her research, she has sought connections between her majors and the space industry, and as a Fulbright Scholar is collaborating with the Satellite Girls Initiative, a group of women working to launch Kyrgyzstan’s first satellite.

By the numbers

Recent CU Boulder scholarship recipients by the numbers:

  • 2 Rhodes Scholars, Jake Reagan (2020) and Serene Singh (2019)
  • 1 Schwarzman Scholar, Zeena Nisar (2020)
  • 1 Marshall Scholar, Emma Oosterhous (2018)
  • 1 Gates-Cambridge Scholar, Christian Philippi (2019)
  • 1 Knight-Hennessy Scholar, Izzy Aguiar (2018)
  • 2 Truman Scholars, Jake Reagan (2019) and Serene Singh (2018)
  • 2 Astronaut Scholars, Ellen Considine (2019) and Emma Simmerman (2018)
  • 2 Boren Fellows, Marielle Butters and Naomi Chang (2018)
  • 14 U.S. Fulbright student grantees
  • 2 Goldwater Scholars, Ellen Considine and Yannick Lee-Yow (2019)

She said the satellite would contribute to the country’s development, further women’s rights, and place Kyrgyzstan in the international space sector.

“The space industry, like so many other STEM industries, remains homogenous,” Nisar wrote in a leadership essay in her Schwarzman application. “Despite the research on the myriad benefits of diverse teams, the gendered lag persists. This was my chance to finally carve change into the space industry for future women.”

Nisar said she was ecstatic to receive the scholarship and to represent CU Boulder, and will use the opportunity to develop leadership skills to one day leverage space technology for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. She also plans to use her position as a space researcher to lead innovation and international collaboration for the peaceful uses of space.

Deborah Viles, director of CU Boulder’s Office of Top Scholarships, has worked with Nisar on several scholarship applications and said, “I admire her thoughtful and purposeful pursuit of humanitarian aims, and I’m so proud to have her represent CU.”

At CU Boulder, Nisar conducted bioastronautics research with the BioServe Space Technologies group under Luis Zea, an aerospace engineering assistant research professor, an experience that transformed her academic and professional trajectory.

Her NASA-funded biofilm research led to the publication, “Design of a Spaceflight Biofilm Experiment,” which she presented at the 2017 American Society for Gravitational and Space Research Conference and the 2018 International Astronautical Congress in Germany. She was also a youth delegate at the Asia-Pacific U.N. Space Generation Workshop in Singapore, where she worked with a group dedicated to increasing gender diversity in the space sector.

Nisar said bioastronautics research work has allowed her to be a part of a highly transnational and transdisciplinary field dedicated to advancing humanity both in space and on Earth. In this field, she said she began to see a future in which she could foster the pursuit of outer space in tandem with sustainable development on Earth.

The Norlin Scholarship community, she said, helped her forge a unique and interdisciplinary path for her future. Her degree in both the hard sciences and in literature taught her to bridge the gap between science and communication, and she is grateful that CU Boulder gave her the opportunities and flexibility to explore so many of her interests.

Her work with organizations such as Ashinaga and the Clinton Global Initiative University are among her contributions to the nonprofit world. With Ashinaga, Zeena contributed STEM educational materials for orphaned and /vulnerable students to equip them for the rigors of American college-level courses. Through the Clinton Global Initiative University, Zeena was a “commitment maker” to a local nonprofit in order to quantify and measure impact.

The Office of Top Scholarships supports students applying for the Schwarzman and other top awards. Contact for more information.