Five students from Iowa State awarded NASA Fellowship

This fall, five Iowa State students were awarded research funding through the Iowa Space Grant Consortium program, a fellowship distributed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Students receiving the fellowship include undergraduate students Benjamin Huseman, Christian Setzer, and Rebecca Meerdink, and graduate students J. Eliseo De León and Mitchell Rock.

The NASA Fellowship is designed to support student education and engagement in NASA relevant research at Iowa State, the University of Iowa, the University of Northern Iowa, and Drake University. Funding is providing from NASA’s Education Program. Graduate students receive $7,000 toward their proposed area of research, and undergraduates receive the same amount in the form of a scholarship.

Benjamin Huseman, senior in mechanical engineering, will be working with associate professor in food science and human nutrition on two projects. One of the projects is funded through the NASA fellowship and is entitled Developing a Novel Algal Culture as a Live Support System under Microgravity Conditions.

“The project uses photobioreactor research that simulates microgravity conditions,” explains Huseman. “We will then monitor the CO2 inlet and outlet, while adjusting different parameters. Microalgae can actually be more effective than land plants at consuming CO2 and releasing O2. The idea is that hopefully algae can be used as a sustainable life support system for long-term space exploration.”

For Christian Setzer, senior in aerospace engineering, this fellowship is familiar, as he received funding through the same source just last year. This year, Setzer will be working with Bong Wie, professor of aerospace engineering, and aerospace engineering graduate student Brian Kaplinger.

Setzer will conduct research for the Asteroid Deflection Research Center (ADRC) this fall. The research will be in support of the Iowa Space Grant Consortium base research program established there. “The topic I will be researching is high-fidelity 3D modeling of fragmentation and dispersion of near-earth objects, or NEO’s,” says Setzer. “I will be learning from Brian Kaplinger in order to continue his research once he graduates.”

Rebecca Meerdink is a senior in environmental science, and will be working with associate professor of agriculture and biostystems engineering, Amy Kaleita. Meerdink will be assisting a post-doctoral student in Kaleita’s lab on a project developing a method to determine the amount of nitrate in a farmer’s field.

“Ions resonate within the soil and soil water in response to specific electrical frequencies. Through the processing of many samples, we can pinpoint different nutrients in the soil that are important to agriculture,” she says. “Our goal is to find the frequencypoint at which nitrateogen resonates within the soil.”

Because nitrate molecules travel easily through the soil, the nutrient can be readily transported into streams, negatively affecting the water quality. In addition, the overapplication of nitrates fertilizer on fields can be costly to farmers.

“The goal of this project would be to have on-site, real-time, soil moisture and nitrate sensing,” explains Meerdink. “Rather than taking soil samples to be processed in a lab, farmers could theoretically push a probe into the soil and instantly get a nitrate and moisture reading. This would save money and positively impact water quality.”

J. Eliseo De León, a fourth year PhD student in materials science and engineering, will continue to work with Michael Kessler, associate professor of materials science and engineering. The grant will allow De León to further his development of new materials and processing techniques suitable for structural capacitor applications, or load bearing electrical energy storage devices.

“The goal of this research is to identify materials and processing methods that can culminate in developing working structural capacitors that improve energy storage ability of current batteries and capacitors while reducing the overall payload that these impart on the vessel,” says De León.

Mitchel Rock, master’s student in materials science and engineering, will also work for Kessler, who was Rock’s mentor as an undergraduate.

Rock’s current project involves working with composites; a mixture of two materials that will perform better together than they perform separately. The aim of his project is to discover composite systems that can be multi-functional.

“Usually composites are used for one purpose, like supporting weight,” explains Rock. “We are trying to include energy storage properties so they can work as capacitors, not only supporting load, but storing energy and replacing other capacitors in an aircraft.”

If the aim of this project is achieved, it could lead to weight savings on aircrafts. A decrease in weight would lead to a decrease in cost, making operations more efficient.

All of the five students began their research projects this fall and will continue work through the spring semester.