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Matt Cufari Named as a 2022-23 Astronaut Scholar


Astronaut Scholar Matt Cufari

Matt Cufari, a senior physics major in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), a computer science major in the College of Engineering and Computer Science, a Coronat Scholar and a member of the Renée Crown University Honors Program, has been named 2022-23 Astronaut Scholar by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF).

Founded by the Mercury 7 astronauts, the foundation awards scholarships to students in their junior or senior year who are pursuing studies in science, technology, engineering or mathematics and who plan to pursue research or advance their field upon completion of their final degree. Nominees are selected based on their exemplary academic performance, ingenuity and unique aptitude for research.

In addition to funding for educational expenses of up to $15,000, the scholarship includes the opportunity for scholars to represent their institutions and present their research at the Scholar Technical Conference; professional mentoring for one year by scholarship alumni, a C-suite executive or an astronaut; the opportunity to participate in a professional development program and foundation events; and membership in the Astronaut Scholar Honor Society.

Cufari will receive the award during the ASF Innovators Week and Gala held Aug. 24-28 in Orlando, Florida. 

“I’m very honored to be named an Astronaut Scholar. I’m grateful for the help I’ve received from my mentors here at Syracuse and in Rochester; they have guided and supported me in my scientific endeavors, and I would not have had the opportunity to apply for and receive this award without their help,” says Cufari. “I’m also thankful for the Center for Fellowship and Scholarship Advising (CFSA) staff’s encouragement and assistance in applying for the Astronaut Scholarship.”

The Astronaut Scholarship is the latest nationally competitive scholarship Cufari has received. Earlier this year, he was selected for a 2022 Goldwater Scholarship.

“Matt’s extraordinary research profile, and presentation and publication record, made him an outstanding nominee for the Astronaut Scholarship,” says Jolynn Parker, director of the CFSA. “We’re thrilled that this award will support him in the important work he aims to do in astrophysics.”

A member of Tau Beta Pi, Cufari plans to earn a Ph.D. in physics and pursue a career in astrophysics research. His research interests are in drawing connections between laboratory plasmas and astrophysical plasmas to better understand phenomena like tidal disruption events and accretion disk formation.

“I’m interested in the dynamics of highly energetic phenomena that don’t readily occur in our solar system, like accretion onto black holes, the tidal disruption of stars and supernovae,” Cufari says. “These phenomena are exciting, luminous and abundant in the universe. Studying these phenomena is necessary to improve our understanding of the behavior of matter in exotic states and the physical processes which drive those behaviors.”

Cufari developed a passion for plasma theory and nuclear fusion as a high school student when he began doing research at the University of Rochester Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE). There, he worked on a project to develop a theoretical framework for images of charged fusion products.

His studies at Syracuse have given him skills in designing physical models of complex systems and solving problems mathematically. “In addition to my work in physics, my coursework in computer science has helped me to understand technologies like reinforcement learning and apply them to my research,” he says.

In his first semester at Syracuse, Cufari joined a research project in the quantum information lab of Britton Plourde, professor of physics, developing a parameter estimation software for superconducting circuits. Since his sophomore year, Cufari has worked with Eric Coughlin, assistant professor of physics, researching theoretical astrophysics.

Cufari’s first project with Professor Coughlin, on eccentric tidal disruption events, culminated in a paper which was accepted for publication in the Astrophysics Journal. He presented his results to the broader community of astrophysicists this month at the conference of the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society.

Cufari and Coughlin are currently investigating chaotic three-body interactions between a supermassive black hole and a binary star system through a National Science Foundation REU. They recently had an article accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters that explains how to reproduce the periodic nuclear transient ASASSN-14ko using these encounters. Cufari was also recently awarded a Syracuse University undergraduate research grant (via The SOURCE) to fund his research this summer.

As a university partner of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, Syracuse University can nominate two students for the Astronaut Scholarship each year. Interested students should contact the CFSA for information on the nomination process (cfsa@syr.edu; 315.443.2759). More information on the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation can be found on its website.



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