We're continuing our series of Cooke Scholar profiles by interviewing high-achievers from across our scholarship programs. We hope to inspire current and future Cooke Scholars by highlighting the incredible range of personalities, ambitions, and accomplishments of this talented group!
This week, we caught up with Kristen (Krysti) Scotti to learn more about the SpaceICE Mission project she leads and her advice for other students considering a career in STEM.
Krysti Scotti in microgravity. Image: Northwestern University
1. Tell us about the SpaceICE Mission project you are leading at Northwestern University. What are you and your team building?
The SpaceICE (“Interface Convective Effects”) Mission is a collaboration between Northwestern, University of Illinois and Bradley University, designed to utilize a CubeSat platform (10x10x30 mm orbiting satellite), which we will build, to study how gravity-driven convection influences properties of materials fabricated using the freeze-casting technique.
The freeze-casting process starts by freezing a “suspension” that consists of particles dispersed in water. The suspension is frozen directionally such that ice crystals grow from the bottom of the sample to the top. As ice grows, particles within the suspension are pushed in between the ice crystals. The frozen suspension contains a pattern of alternating ice/particle layers, extending throughout the sample. Next, we remove the ice by freeze-drying the ice/particle material and later, “sinter” (bake) the particle material. The final structure contains “pores” (holes) that replicate the structure of the ice crystals that formed them, surrounded by dense walls. Learning how to better control the structure of the ice crystal will allow us to manipulate material properties. This is difficult to study on Earth because gravity-driven convection complicates the freezing stage. The goal of the SpaceICE mission is to better understand how gravity affects this process by repeatedly freezing and thawing the suspension in space and comparing images of the freezing process to those obtained under terrestrial conditions.
2. What goals or needs does your research help support?
Freeze-casting is a versatile, environmentally friendly materials fabrication technique that can be used to create a large variety of materials (from fuel cell electrodes to cocoa cubes!). We hope to better understand the process that dictate properties of the final product. Ultimately, achieving the project goals entails advancement of an environmentally friendly fabrication technique. Additionally, because the technique does not require large, expensive machinery, we are investigating the technique as a space-based manufacturing method. For this, we need to understand how gravity changes the material properties to modify the process for space-based applications.
Equally important as the scientific goals, this project will provide over 100 undergraduate students from Northwestern, U of I, and Bradley University with the opportunity to gain practical, hands-on science, engineering, and leadership skills.
3. How did you become involved in research work with NASA?
I applied for a competitive research program with NASA during my first semester of college after my professor mentioned the opportunity during class. I was accepted into the competition, which involved spending a summer independently writing a mock proposal for a mission to Mars. The requirements included both designing the scientific investigation as well as engineering the payload. NASA selected fifty projects, including mine. Selected students traveled to Marshall Space Flight Center for several days of workshops, tours, and the like. I found the combined science/engineering challenge fascinating; I was instantly hooked. By the time I went to Marshall, I had already put together a team (consisting of students who were accepted to the program) and submitted a proposal for the student flight program. That proposal was accepted, and I’ve done three additional flight campaigns since. Every project I’ve worked on has been a scientific investigation with some degree of engineering challenge (“Oh wait, we can’t do that because we don’t have gravity,” has been uttered during team meetings more times than I can count). The SpaceICE Mission will be, by far, the most challenging, though.
4. Have your goals changed since receiving the Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship? Why would you advise others to apply?
After being awarded the Cooke Foundation scholarship, I transferred to Northwestern and quit my full-time job so that I could invest myself fully into research. I would not have had the audacity to make such decisions without the foundation’s support. Becoming a Cooke Scholar meant that I had a foundation of people who believed in me enough that they were willing to invest in what I might become. It gave me the confidence I needed to take the risk and the sense of obligation necessary to make it work.
I echo many other scholars when I say that the largest benefit of being a Cooke Scholar is being a part of the Jack Kent Cooke community. Never could I have imagined a group of ultra-high achieving individuals with diverse talents and backgrounds coming together to share unconditional acceptance and support for each other. It’s awe-inspiring to think about what the group has collectively achieved as a result of this support network.
5. What steps would you recommend taking for a high schooler or community college student interested in a STEM career?
Get involved in research as early as possible, in any capacity for which you are able. Research will help you solidify concepts learned in the classroom and teaches critical thinking skills that are applicable to any career field. If research opportunities are not available at your school, look for outside opportunities. In particular, NASA has a diverse array of STEM programs for high school and college students. If you’re at a community college, seek summer internship opportunities at your target 4-year university. If you absolutely cannot find a research program to get into, simply reading and becoming familiar with scientific literature will take you a long way toward learning how to think like a scientist, which is vitally important in any STEM career.