Harper College student working on NASA project

Updated 12/30/2011 6:04 PM
  • Harper College student Krysti Scotti, 30, of North Aurora is one of just a handful of community college students across the nation selected for NASA's Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program.

      Harper College student Krysti Scotti, 30, of North Aurora is one of just a handful of community college students across the nation selected for NASA's Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Some might say that the sky's the limit when it comes to education, and that couldn't be more true for Krysti Scotti.

In just two years' time, the 30-year-old married mother of two will have made the leap from contemplating getting her college degree to conducting science experiments for NASA on a microgravity aircraft.

"I've waited so long to be able to go back to school and focus on it since I value education so much more now," Scotti said. "I'm having so much fun just learning."

This June, the Harper College student will head to Johnson Space Center in Houston, don a flight suit and take to the skies as part of NASA's Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program.

Of the 14 undergraduate research teams selected to take part in the Microgravity University program, the North Aurora resident's crew is the only one made up of community college students. The nine-person team, called Illumi-Nation, hails from seven different states.

"We're kind of the underdogs, because a lot of these other schools like MIT and Yale compete every year and have a ton of money and support," Scotti said. "But that only motivates me."

Scotti, who also works full time in Oswego and next week starts class at Northwestern University in Evanston, said each team proposes, designs, fabricates, flies and then evaluates its own reduced gravity experiment over a six-month period.

But the highlight, of course, is the flight.

Known widely as the "vomit comet," the plane will head to its own airspace over the Gulf of Mexico and make roughly 30 parabolic maneuvers -- picture a roller coaster pattern -- that result in brief periods of hypergravity and then weightlessness.

Scotti and four other fliers will have some fun during the first few parabolas, doing midair somersaults and attempting not to slam into the plane's padded insides as they adjust to the surreal environment.

But then it's down to business, with their focus turning to "nanofoam" synthesis experiments.

A theory exists that these substances, when created in a microgravity environment, have antimicrobial properties. That's significant because the foams could be used in biomedical implants, which could potentially promote tissue regrowth without the risk of infection.

The team hopes its experiment will later be done on the International Space Station.

"In our critique, (NASA) said the strength of our experiment is that there's a lot of research pending the results of initial research, and our research is that initial research," Scotti said.

It's an opportunity Scotti never dreamed of when, one summer night in 2010, she casually mentioned to her husband, Anthony, she was thinking about finishing her education.

"He said, 'well, why don't you?'" said Scotti, a West Chicago High School graduate.

One of the first classes the math major took was astronomy, one of her passions. She excelled and took to heart associate professor Bhasker Moorthy's talk on NASA's undergraduate research opportunities.

"I noticed her work ethic right away, and she excelled in every aspect of the course," Moorthy said.

Scotti happened upon NASA's Community College Aerospace Scholars program. She was one of 180 students selected, and the only one from Illinois. She spent the summer independently planning a detailed mission to Mars.

Her work earned her one of 48 spots in an on-site program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where she spent three days in November developing a prototype Mars rover and presenting the project to NASA engineers.

Scotti believes the experiences and networking have prepared her for the work she'll have to do leading up to her microgravity flight.

She's also excited for the outreach required of each team member. She and her husband, who's on the team's ground crew, are working with Triple Threat Mentoring to increase interest in math and science among at-risk youth on the east side of Aurora.

Though she transferred to Northwestern, Scotti will stay at Harper to take an ethics class online and conduct the control experiments needed to compare the data that will be compiled on the plane. She'll soon meet with the chemistry department to set it up.

"What Krysti is doing would be impressive coming from any student at any college in the country," Moorthy said. "I think it shows that research can and should be done at community colleges."

Scotti agrees, and said her time at Harper helped put her on a path she hopes will lead to a Ph.D program in math and physics at California Technical Institute.

"I almost don't have time to be excited right now because there's so much going on," Scotti said. "But I'm loving every minute of it."

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