Students Win NASA Space Grant Awards

Alli Williams and Kate Kirkpatrick
Nasa Space Grant

NASA Space Grant scholarship recipient Benjamin Hawley working in the lab.

This semester, six Truckee Meadows Community College students were selected for the Nevada NASA Space Grant Community of Practice Scholarship to conduct research in STEM fields. The students each received $1,000 scholarships.

TMCC student recipients include Keziah Dutt, David Flores, Benjamin Hawley, Nicholas Kimutis, Sena Lagatta and Nicholas Langton. They are each required to complete 45 hours of research during the semester, which may include field work and lab work. Scholarship recipients also have the opportunity to attend scientific conferences.

During the semester, these students have been participating in four different research projects. Some of the students work in collaboration with each other and with other students, while others work independently.

“The idea is to get students to start doing field work and research early in their careers,” said Dr. Laura Briggs, Biology and Community Health Science Department Chair. “The earlier they start, the more likely they will be to finish their degree and eventually go on to grad school and a professional career.”

The grant is a joint effort between TMCC, Great Basin Community College, Western Nevada Community College, and College of Southern Nevada. At the end of the semester, students from each college who are participating in the program will share their findings with each other and discuss their research on the different projects.

Stories in the Snow: Citizen Science

The Stories in the Snow project will be a collection of data from snowfall in the Lake Tahoe/Truckee Basin region of the Sierra Nevada. This project engages the community as “citizen scientists” in real data collection and research, and is a partnership with the Desert Research Institute (DRI).

Nicholas Kimutis has been working with the DRI this semester to collect and analyze the data contributed by citizen scientists.

“We went into middle and high school classrooms in Northern Nevada, taught students about snow crystals and provided them with snow capture kits,” said Kimutis. “Whenever it snowed, students were encouraged to go outside, capture ice crystals, then take photos of the crystals.”

Citizen scientists only need a “Stories in the Snow” kit with a macro lens and snow crystal card, which can be obtained at the Stories in the Snow website, and a smartphone to download the app and take photos of snowflakes. The data is then used for avalanche forecasting, the validation of weather models and the cloud seeding program.

Kimutis has also been working on a project about fire and the effects it can have on a region. Kimutis will present this project, Red Flag Warning and Fire Weather Watch Criteria, at the Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative (CCURI) conference in Glendale, AZ in late November.

In the coming months, Kimutis will also be bringing the Stories in the Snow project to a new audience.

“The scholarship is important to me because it will allow for the expansion of Stories in the Snow to the Civil Air Patrol’s Reno Composite Squadron,” Kimutis continued. “Over the coming winter, we will teach the Cadets about ice crystal formation and provide the Squadron with Snow Capture Kits.”

Truckee River Milkweed

The milkweed plant population in Reno is found on the Truckee River corridor, and is an important food source for Monarch caterpillars. During the summer, students collected milkweed seed pods to analyze. 

TMCC student David Flores is collecting data on the seed pods that were gathered, and will later do different manipulations to see what could improve or what could hinder germination rates. The seedlings will then grow in a greenhouse and eventually be transplanted back to the Truckee River when the plants reach maturity. Dr. Megan Lahti and Dr. Cecilia Vigil are the faculty mentors for the Milkweed project.

Truckee River Water Quality and Soil Analysis

Another project that scholarship recipients are working on is testing the water quality along the Truckee River and analyzing the soil nearby. Keziah Dutt, Sena Lagatta and Nicholas Langton are working on the water quality project, while Benjamin Hawley is analyzing the soil samples.

Samples will be taken in different areas along the Truckee River. There are two main points of interest where samples will be collected, including just before Reno and just beyond the urban area. Another area of interest is near USA Parkway just after the industrial region.

Researchers will be looking at pH levels of the water, as well as phosphate and nitrate concentration. Contaminants in the water and soil will also be analyzed to gather data on any changes from location to location. Dr. Sameer Bhattarai and Dr. Laura Briggs are the faculty mentors on this project.

Undergraduate Research Presentations

The students will be presenting their work among peers at the end of the semester, and again in April at the NASA Space Grant Research Symposium in Reno. Along with the scholarship, students were also given the opportunity to visit conferences as representatives of TMCC. Langton will be going to Washington D.C. in November to attend the National Institute of Health (NIH) Community College Day, and both Kimutis and Flores will attend the CCURI conference in Glendale, AZ to present their research.

“I believe it is incredibly important to give back to the northern Nevada community which has given so much to me and hopefully inspire a passion for research in others,” said Kimutis.

Briggs believes that this kind of research for undergraduates is important for students to understand their area of study and become a better well-rounded researcher. To her, there are certain limitations in taking exams and working in a lab that students can break free of when they are actively participating in tangible scientific research.

“Students need an authentic experience doing research in the field in order to become a skilled scientist,” Briggs said. “Undergraduate research requires students to think more critically, and is invaluable in training scientists for future careers.”

Get more information about the Nevada NASA Space Grant, by contacting Dr. Laura Briggs at 775-673-7257.