On Dec. 5, a rocket launched from NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida and began its long journey to the International Space Station that orbits the globe.
On board were a flight crew, cargo and eight science experiments from across the country, including one designed by a Montana State University science lab and led by recent Butte High graduate Kenna White.
“It was a little overwhelming because I’m new to the science world. I felt under qualified,” White said about her experience at the NASA center. “But it was also exciting to see how other scientists from around the world did things. I felt sort of special.”
White completed the first two years of her high school career in Bozeman, but came to Butte for her junior year. She said that’s when she took chemistry with Colleene Fogarty, who encouraged her to apply for a funding collaboration between Montana Tech’s Bringing Research Into the Classroom program and the Montana IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence program. The BRIC/INBRE collaboration provided high school students the opportunity to do summer research in a college lab, White said.
“The whole reason I’m in this lab is because of Mrs. Fogarty,” White said. “She was a great resource for me.”
But Fogarty said White didn’t need her help. The chemistry teacher described White as one of the most amazing students she’d ever had.
White took school very seriously and was very driven, Fogarty said. In her year at Butte High, she even tried to start a girl’s lacrosse league and asked Fogarty to be the coach.
“That girl could do anything,” Fogarty said.
White graduated high school a year early and started working with Sheila Nielsen’s microbiology and immunology lab last summer through the BRIC/INBRE joint program.
“Over the summer, I could tell Kenna was very conscientious and bright. She was committed to being in the lab when she said she would and worked hard,” Nielsen said. “That’s special to see in any student, but super special to see in a first-semester freshman.”
She invited White to stay on with her lab for the fall semester.
For the past decade, Nielsen’s lab has studied the Candida yeast species, which can cause various infections, including diaper rash and athlete’s foot, Nielsen said. Most of these yeast infections are treatable, but can kill people with diminished immune system responses, like astronauts, Nielsen and White both said.
“We’re looking at how this species adapts in microgravity,” Nielsen said. “Our findings can help NASA better understand how the yeast species affects people living in space.”
The experiment launched on SpaceX 16 earlier this month, with the help of White and Nielsen’s son, Kyle Preiss, will look at how the Candida yeast species grows in a low-gravitational, space environment and at what space conditions influence this growth.
The SpaceX 16 flight crew will activate the yeast’s growth on Thursday morning and terminate the experiment after 24 hours, Nielsen said. Her lab will receive their yeast cells back in early January.
Nielsen said she was impressed with White’s professionalism the whole week and a half they were at the Kennedy Space Center preparing the experiment. White is new to this field, but represented Montana very well, Nielsen said—so much so, that she will head back to the center this spring to help with two related experiments out of Nielsen’s lab set to launch on SpaceX 17.
White said she is “super stoked” to head back to Florida. When she first joined the lab, she said she was taken aback because she’d never heard of astrobiology before.
“I thought this can’t be true, I’m not going to go to NASA,” White said, laughing.
She said she quickly learned otherwise and is now considering adding an astrobiology minor to her microbiology degree.
“I absolutely want more,” White said. “This is a new frontier I think is very advantageous to keep going into.”