Students to conduct research with NASA mentors in Pasadena


By Jim North
Southeast Campus Editor


Today, the research-based poster-presentation at Tulsa Community College (TCC)—tomorrow the world!

Translation: in this case, ‘world’ means 10-weeks of hands-on experience with NASA mentors in sunny Pasadena, Calif., this summer.

Students conducted poster-presentations in the Math/Science building on April 13 as part of their STEM Research Challenge class.

Being part of the class and the poster-presentation event serves as preparation for being competitive at the NASA Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) in California.

This year’s internships began June 13 and will conclude August 19.

Topics for research are of the student’s choosing. The research and presentations are done in groups, though input from TCC faculty, who volunteer as mentors, is readily available.

Mary Phillips, associate professor of biology at TCC, says students are given a mission. “It has to be a project with a NASA focus … it’s very broad and it’s very open-ended.”

Fields of chemistry, math, biology, microbiology and engineering are represented within the class.

This summer marks the fourth group from TCC to benefit from $260,000 of NASA funding. Phillips says a four-year grant for the NASA focused course has come to an end.

TCC interns are being referred to this year as ‘The Fabulous Five’. Once in California, they will engage research in conjunction with their assigned mentors.

Alec Schalo and Alexander Holden will work with JPL mentor, Kalind Carpenter, on ‘Robotics’.

Brian Corbit will work with JPL mentor, Dr. Paul Johnson, on ‘Icy Worlds Science’.

Tiffany Verlander will work with JPL mentor, Dr. Mike Malaska, on ‘Titan Science’.

Kisa Fors-Francis will work with JPL mentor, Dr. Aaron Noell, on ‘Instruments for Extraction/Detection of Bio-markers’.

Fors-Francis is majoring in electrical engineering at TCC and plans to complete her bachelor’s degree at Oklahoma State University (OSU) in Stillwater.

Professionally, she hopes to one day work in the field of telecommunications. “The world always needs a better radio,” she says.

The research surrounding Fors-Francis’ poster presentation encompasses a complete nutritional diet utilizing solid waste management.

Her group collaborated to prove the claim that using black soldier fly larvae and earthworms can break down astronaut waste products, thus creating a growing medium for plants on Mars.

Fors-Francis says the opportunity to work with NASA mentors has been invaluable.

“They [NASA] were able to ask questions about our research and really help us to refine our ideas into viable projects that ended up giving us plenty of useful data,” she says.

Learning outcomes were accompanied by the realization that many more discoveries are to be made and additional research still outstanding in her area of expertise.

“Scientific research is still such a wide, open field for anyone that has the curiosity to ask ‘why’ or ‘how,’” says Fors-Francis.

She feels the benefit of teams working together allows projects to be divided, so that no one person is overwhelmed by the larger scope of the work.

Another benefit is the built-in checks and balances for ‘bouncing ideas’ and keeping each other on track.

Fors-Francis is eager for this summer’s 10-week travel opportunity to work with JPL. She calls it a great opportunity to work in a cutting-edge lab making tremendous breakthroughs in the world of science.

She adds that engineers can play a significant role in research. “Now I see opportunities for engineers to make discoveries everywhere.”

Grateful for the TCC faculty and the Math/Science department, Fors-Francis applauds the great support and encouragement toward students willing to learn and contribute the work necessary to succeed.

A graduate of TCC in the Biology and the Geographical Information Systems (GIS) program, Tiffany
is working on her bachelor’s degree at Northeastern State University (NSU) in organismic biology, with a wildlife and fisheries concentration.

She dreams of having a career in the field she loves, using GIS to help coordinate wildlife conservation efforts.

“They always say if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Verlander hopes her career will allow her to travel and see more of the world.

Her group’s research is ongoing, namely on the topic of growing spirulina.

“Spirulina is a superfood and could be grown in a space efficient, closed-loop system with minimal growth needs, [thus] to help give astronauts the nutrients they need on long space travels,” she says.

Her research was initiated to develop a system of growing spirulina, as well as to test its yield and the factors which determine the best possible growth, including varying wavelengths of light.

Verlander is grateful for the opportunity to work with NASA, calling it both ‘exciting’ and a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity.

“I will come out with more knowledge in my field, a new network of friends and comrades and hopefully some well-rounded life experiences,” she adds.

As for the group research concept, Verlander sees value in getting along with others.

“When people work together as a team, we can accomplish great things. Many jobs require teamwork.”

She says the STEM Research Challenge course has been wonderful and has facilitated students working together. Additionally, she has valued the teacher input during the course.

Verlander speaks highly of the course-content and opportunities which have availed as a result.

“It helped us get our feet wet and understand how to handle research, steps to take and how to critically think about things and ask questions.”

She looks forward to the travel opportunity this summer, calling it a good way to learn, absorb and understand other cultures, and people.

Verlander concludes by expressing gratitude for her ‘amazing’ experience.

“I adore the science and math department at TCC. The teachers I’ve had actually care about the students. I honestly wish it were possible for me to get my bachelor’s degree at TCC.”

TCC recently became an official affiliate of the Oklahoma NASA Space Grant Consortium, approved and signed into effect by TCC President Leigh Goodson.

Few community colleges in the nation belong to a space grant, according to Phillips.

The grant is funded by Congress and the monies are dispersed in each state among their affiliate and sub-affiliate colleges and universities.

Next year, TCC will receive $5,000 in funding—half from the space grant—and the remainder from the TCC Foundation.

“It’s really a great thing for our students,” Phillips concludes.

From poster-presentations in the college classroom to research-based internships with NASA, ‘The Fab Five’ plan to make a lasting impact on earth and the regions beyond.

For more information about the Math/Science department or research-based poster-presentations, contact Mary Phillips at