Engineering’s Campbell Award Winner is Shooting for the Stars

Graduating senior Matthew Werneken, recipient of a 2024 Campbell Award, advises students to find community and support by exploring all the opportunities Columbia offers.

May 10 2024 | By Beatrice Mhando
Beatrice Mhando

During his first year, Matthew Werneken was the only student who showed up in person for the course that would set his path for the stars.

“I weaseled my way into an upper-level Galaxies class just because I thought it was cool,” Werneken said. “During the first few weeks of the semester, it was only me who was in person.”

He gained a valuable connection with Associate Professor of Astronomy, David Schiminovich. “I don't know why I even went in person just to join a Zoom class, but I enjoyed the walks to and from the elevator with him afterward,” Werneken said.

The next summer, Werneken joined his professor’s research group, the Schiminovich Astronomy and Instrumentation Lab. Schiminovich’s mentorship would define his time on campus and inspire the student to pursue further graduate research. He also developed an invaluable relationship with Mechanical Engineering Professor and former NASA astronaut, Mike Massimino, as he led missions in the Columbia Space Initiative (CSI).

“I found mentors here who are supportive of whatever you want to do to learn,” Werneken said. “I think once you identify those people who are invested in you personally, it's very easy to ask them about the opportunities they have because they’ll want to share them.”

The Campbell Award for exceptional leadership

Werneken joins a select group of 2024 graduating students across Columbia University who are recipients of the annual Campbell Award. Established by the University’s Board of Trustees and the Columbia Alumni Association (CAA), the award is presented to one graduating student from each school who shows exceptional leadership and Columbia spirit as exemplified by the late Bill Campbell ’62CC, ’64TC, University Trustee Chair Emeritus, and CAA co-founder.

“I honestly felt a little guilty when I first got the email,” he said in response to the news. “I know my accomplishments, and they're the same accomplishments that a lot of my friends have. To be the specific person who’s attached to an award that was really earned by a group is just a really interesting reflection on where my time has gone, and what effort has been most impactful.”

While at Columbia Engineering, Werneken has been involved in CSI and has been devoted to growing a community through his interests in astronomy and engineering. “It is an exploratory club of anything related to space, particularly on the engineering side of things, of course,” the former CSI co-president explained. “We have projects from space microbiology to rockets to a CubeSat, which is what I'm now working on.”

Werneken will spend one more year finishing up his degree in astrophysics under the Columbia Engineering and Columbia College 4 + 1 program, and he plans to spend the remaining year on campus applying to graduate school and exploring New York.

Matthew Werneken (left) with mentor, Professor Mike Massimino, pictured at Columbia Space Initiative’s “Are you Smarter than an Astronaut” event

Matthew Werneken (left) with mentor, Professor Mike Massimino, pictured at Columbia Space Initiative’s “Are you Smarter than an Astronaut” event

We caught up with Werneken to talk about his Columbia experience, his passion for astronomy, and what's next.

As co-president of the Columbia Space Initiative, what are some of the things you’re focused on?  

My primary research commitment is really the CubeSat project through CSI, which is advised by Schiminovich. It was an idea that my friend Bruno Rergis had, to build a satellite, and we made a team out of it. We ultimately won flight funding from NASA, which will happen sometime in the next few years. 

I've also helped lead the more public-facing community events we've done, like our “Are You Smarter Than an Astronaut?” trivia event last semester, an International Space Station downlink, as well as a book talk for Professor Massimino’s new release.

I'm particularly excited about our outreach because that's where I started. All of my leadership, and the purpose that I find in teaching younger students at Columbia — or outside of it — was built through that community outreach role.

Tell us about your experience working with David Schiminovich and the Schiminovich Astronomy and Instrumentation Lab. 

In my sophomore year, I joined the Schiminovich Astronomy and Instrumentation Lab (SAIL). I spent that summer 3D-modeling a small spectrograph, which was intended to be a condensed version of a larger instrument that's out in Arizona at their observatory right now. I was really doing mechanical engineering work for an astronomy goal.

I started to appreciate the data side of things and the implications of the science that we were doing beyond Earth, and have since explored more astronomy research, most recently exploring Young Stellar Object variability in the Large Magellanic Cloud. This summer, I'll actually be spending time in the SAIL lab again, working on related telescope development projects. I think long term that's the niche I hope to fill as well.

Matthew Werneken with fellow members of Columbia Space Initiative

With fellow members of Columbia Space Initiative

What are your plans after graduation? 

I am spending one more year at Columbia College to do an astrophysics major. I've discovered through my engineering research journey that I really enjoy the mechanical engineering side of things, but I enjoy applying it, particularly to astronomy applications even more.

I'm intending to go down the astronomy PhD route with a focus on instrumentation building telescopes, using the skill set that I've gained at Columbia Engineering. I'm not decided on my PhD thesis, but I'm pretty confident that I want to retain hardware work within space exploration.

I think a lot of students with similar interests, especially those around me in mechanical engineering, are leaning toward aerospace engineering. I could see a future working on human spaceflight as well. But, for now, I just want to observe the universe.

How has Columbia Engineering prepared you for your next chapter?

The biggest advantage I've had here is the opportunity to explore as much as possible, and we have truly awesome department administrators in mechanical engineering. Obviously I found really great mentorship in the faculty; whatever wild ideas I have, I can find support to pursue them. I think being able to turn your exploratory ideas into actual events, or technical initiatives, is really special.

Any advice to share with first-year students? 

My main advice or philosophy is as soon as you get to Columbia Engineering, you have to commit to whatever you're interested in. Find extracurriculars — and maybe specific classes — and go all in on them.

It's not necessarily to say that you're going to stick with them. I tried at least four or five different extracurriculars in my first and sophomore years, some of which ultimately did not bring value to my time, but were worth trying to build new skills.

And then there are some clubs, like the Columbia Space Initiative, that led me directly to leadership roles, and being personally involved in projects that are defining my future.

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