College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Kara Lind: Growing plants in LEGOs

lab horizontalAfter finishing her B.S. in chemical engineering at Iowa State, graduate student Kara Lind was looking for a change of pace. But she didn’t have to travel very far. Staying at Iowa State, Lind is now a graduate student in materials science and engineering.

During her time as an undergraduate, Lind focused on biofuels research, and though she has changed her focus, her passion for working in a lab is just as strong.

Lind is now working with different materials to study plant growth. Her work, done with assistant professor of materials science and engineering Ludovico Cademartiri, looks at ways to make affordable tools that help analyze the relationships between plants, bacteria and other organisms.

She is focusing on two research projects, the first of which involves growing plants on paper surfaces. “It limits the plant’s response to gravity,” she says. “Since it can’t grow down, you end up growing the roots in two dimensions.”

This system is not only inexpensive, but it allows Lind and her colleagues to control very specific conditions of the environment, such as temperature, nutrient availability and especially relative humidity. “Normally in a growth chamber it’s hard to get a humidity lower than 30%, but using a saturated salt to control the humidity has allowed us a range of 15%-100%.”

For her second project, Lind is growing plants in systems built from LEGO bricks. This unexpected building material has worked well for the research team, because it’s commercially available, modular and made of transparent plastic with a high melting temperature, allowing the team to sterilize the plant’s environment. “We’re hoping to open up our lab to a whole new realm of organisms to see what kinds of interactions they have.”

She says her interest in this work comes from “a desire to benefit society” by addressing global food security. “We’re not looking directly at the field in an agricultural sense, but we’re looking at understanding how plants respond to stressors.” Knowing plant responses means knowing better ways to grow them, providing efficient ways to meet the growing food demand. Lind plans to graduate in summer or fall of 2017 and hopes to find a job working with engineering and plant science or microbiology.