Campus News

Brother and sister scholars continue lifelong academic connection

Lisa Gagnon and her brother, Stephen Gagnon, both UB graduate students.

Lisa Gagnon and her brother, Stephen, have performed together with high school and college orchestras — Lisa on cello and Stephen on string bass — and support each other in their individual endeavors as UB graduate students. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published January 3, 2020

“I think we sometimes overlook the outstanding graduate students here at UB. Both attended UB for their undergraduate degrees. They then decided to enroll in UB graduate programs and have been recognized for their academic excellence through prestigious fellowships. ”
Elizabeth Colucci, director
Office of Fellowships and Scholarships

Lisa Gagnon and her brother, Stephen Gagnon, both UB graduate students, have always been close.

Years ago as kids, there was what they called toy mixing, “using what we had” and putting their LEGOs, Barbie toys and stuffed animals together to create adventure stories, guiding their stuffed animals through basement explorations in their parents’ home.

They performed together in high school and college orchestras — Lisa on her cello and Stephen on string bass. They took AP courses together. Lisa would routinely wander into her brother’s bedroom and get him to talk about his science work, and he would ask about her language studies.

So it’s natural that common thread continues. After earning UB undergraduate degrees, they continue to build successful graduate careers at the university, very close to their family’s house on Willow Green Drive in Amherst.

“It’s fun,” says Lisa, 25, who just finished her first semester in the Graduate School of Education’s Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) program. “It’s definitely nice to have someone not from your program to talk about things. Especially when the only people you are interacting with are doing the same thing you are.”

Stephen, 23, is another promising student who dreamed of fantastic spaceships in science fiction stories and is now pursuing science and reality in the UB Nanosatellite Laboratory overseen by John L. Crassidis, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering. Currently pursuing a PhD in aerospace engineering focusing on dynamics and control, Stephen knows that Lisa’s impromptu drop-ins in his room at home help him study and stay well-adjusted.

“They usually start with her asking ‘What are you doing?’” Stephen says. “And I will give her some explanation that she needs to ask a bunch of questions about because I don’t always have a good layman’s explanation ready to go. It’s definitely necessary because otherwise I would just sit there and work for a long time.”

“It hasn’t changed much, being in graduate school,” Lisa says.

Using creative arts to being people together

Lisa was in Latvia from 2017-18 on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship, where she taught a university creative writing workshop and played cello in a Latvian orchestra.

She is now a teaching artist at Buffalo String Works, a nonprofit music program on Buffalo’s West Side primarily serving immigrants and refugees. She volunteered with Jericho Road’s English as a Second Language Initiative, teaching English to native-Arabic speakers.

Lisa also earned a Schomburg Fellowship from UB, which allowed her to work in the Office of Fellowships and Scholarships to help other students apply and win awards like the Fulbright.

The TESOL program gives her options. She could go abroad again, work in Buffalo schools or continue with nonprofits and arts, which she really enjoys.

“I am interested in the way language learning and creative arts open doors and bring community members together,” Lisa says.

Avoiding space collisions

Stephen received the competitive NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunities (NSTGRO) grant. He can provide an easy-to-understand explanation of his UBNL work on demand, at least partially due to his linguistics-trained older sister.

“We’re trying to figure out what are the shapes and orientation of objects that are in orbit, particularly looking at a certain type of measurement, which is called light curves, or non-resolved imagery,” Stephen says. “This is a technique for things in higher orbits you can’t observe well or things that are small enough that they are difficult to observe in other ways. We’re just trying to figure out how are they shaped and how are they oriented so we can better estimate their orbits.

“The big application is space debris avoidance. There are lots of bits and pieces floating around that will hit you at 10,000 miles an hour and blow your ship apart, even though they are the size of a marble. So you really need to estimate where they are precisely so you make sure you are not hitting them.”

Homegrown scholars

The children of Evelyn and Michael Gagnon, they each have earned sincere accolades from faculty and administrators instrumental in their progress.

“I think we sometimes overlook the outstanding graduate students here at UB,” says Elizabeth Colucci, director of UB’s Office of Fellowships and Scholarships, whose office has advanced both students. “Both attended UB for their undergraduate degrees. They then decided to enroll in UB graduate programs and have been recognized for their academic excellence through prestigious fellowships.

“Lisa’s participation in the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship prepared her for her graduate degree in education. Stephen is currently the only graduate student funded by this NASA fellowship. Both are significant awards and speak to the quality of our graduate student body.”

Crassidis says Stephen “possesses extraordinary intellectual abilities, combined with his very practical knowledge.” His NSTGRO grant places him in the “upper echelon of students in the country.”

“He is using his unique abilities to tackle a very difficult and practical problem involving tracking fast-moving debris objects in space,” Crassidis says. “His work is significant in the broader sense of reducing the probability of future collisions, not only saving money but also mitigating the effects of producing even more dangerous debris that may collide with other satellites.”

Each actively supports the other. Lisa quickly and efficiently forwarded her little brother’s research information when contacted for this article. Stephen clearly values his sister’s work and relationship, breaking from his focus on research to send memes and jokes, including those about cats in honor of their family pet, Piper.

“I don’t want to make it sound like Stephen was playing with Barbie dolls all the time,” says Lisa. “He liked the Barbie cars and airplanes.”