The Final Ag Frontier: Plant sciences student looks to the skies

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — While it was snowing at University Park, State College native and sixth-year student Laura Reese spent her spring semester in sunny Cape Canaveral, Florida, working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Reese is majoring in both plant sciences, with the plant genetics and biotechnology option, as well as biochemistry and molecular biology. She is working on minors in plant pathology and mushroom science and technology.

“Space is one of my passions and so are plants,” she explained. Reese heard about the internship at NASA’s plant division through Penn State greenhouse manager Scott DiLoreto. The internship combined Reese’s two interests and would turn out to be a match made in the heavens. 

At Cape Canaveral, Reese’s work included studies in plant nutrition, lighting and future crop selection for use in the International Space Station. In the course of her internship, she also ran some of her own experiments and worked in the division’s ground-control project, which was trying to re-create, as closely as possible, the growing conditions in outer space.

Information like carbon dioxide levels and temperature in the International Space Station are transferred via a live satellite uplink to the labs in Florida, so scientists can compare the two growing environments.

Most of Reese’s time was spent working on her own project, where she attempted to germinate zinnia seeds that had been produced in orbit. Zinnias were the first flowers to be grown in space and the seeds from these flowers were used by Reese in her experiment. Another major project that Reese and her mentor, Matthew Mickens, examined was how crops respond to different wavelengths of LED light. The wavelengths of light that are blocked or increased can have major impacts on plant growth.

“The plants can have real issues," she explained. "The leaves will turn yellow and then start to brown like they have some sort of nutrient deficiency, but it’s really the wavelengths of light causing the problem.” Reese also spent time working with simulated lunar soil to try and find a way to make the wet concrete-like material more palatable to plants.

It is hard to imagine a farm on the moon, but Reese said there are some larger implications for agriculture based on the research NASA is doing. “They call it ‘controlled environment agriculture.’ We’re trying to move agriculture from being only terrestrial to being extraterrestrial as well. We’re expanding where humans can grow plants.”

This does not just mean growing cabbage on the moon. “It can translate to growing crops better on Earth, too,” Reese said. For example, the research helps scientists to experiment with growing plants in environments that have purely artificial light or to improve hydroponic systems.

Being part of the NASA workforce was a great experience for Reese. “Everyone I worked with was very friendly and always ready and willing to help. They were happy to have interns around and were very willing to talk about their research,” she said. 

She highly recommends participating in undergraduate internships. “They’re a great way to get experience in your field and discover new things,” she said.  

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Last Updated September 15, 2017