Though California native Kaylee Presnell has snorkeled with sharks, she has her eyes on goals millions of miles above the sea. Kaylee is a fifth-year food, agricultural and biological engineering major at The Ohio State University. Specifically, Kaylee specializes in biological engineering following the biosystems track, where her interests have led her from working within local community gardens all the way to an internship with NASA.
Kaylee decided to study biological engineering in her sophomore year. Her first two internships were in the manufacturing sector, first with a defense company and then with a private food corporation. However, these experiences led her to realize she was more interested in research.
As a student in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering (FABE), capstone is a requirement for graduation. Capstone projects are a chance for students to work on a team of peers to get hands-on experiences solving real-world problems in partnership with outside companies or agencies. One such partnership is between Ohio State and NASA, offering a chance for students to participate in the eXploration Systems and Habitation Academic Innovation Challenge (X-Hab). In August 2020, Kaylee joined a team whose project would be the Deep Space Food Challenge.
“We had to write a proposal and design a novel solution to something in space, specifically that can enable you to grow or produce palatable nutritious safe food,” Kaylee said. “Teams came from within the industry or universities, most of my team consisted of Ohio State students.”
Kaylee continued to work on this project through the summer. “A lot of my summer was just doing research, literature reviews and kind of like gauging what space culture really is.”
This challenge was overseen by Dr. Peter Ling, Associate Professor in FABE. Dr. Jane Fife, FABE capstone instructor and Dr. Chieri Kubota, Professor of controlled environment agriculture for the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science also helped oversee this project, which was a collaboration between the NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and the Privy Council Office.
“I was very interested in hydroponics and vertical farming and then I realized that you could do it in space and it’s kind of spiraled.”
Kaylee was first introduced to hydroponics systems during the spring of 2021, where she took a service-learning course with Dr. Chris Ratcliff. The course, FABENG 3200-S Engineering and Community Development, focuses on the causes of food insecurity and how partnerships can bring about community-focused solutions. For example, Kaylee and her classmates built a hydroponic rainwater collection system for a community garden in Columbus.
“It was probably one of my favorite classes I’ve ever taken,” Kaylee said. “It’s very tied into what I do now, in a way. That was low-tech hydroponic systems but in the same realm of controlled agriculture.”
From these low-tech solutions to local problems, Kaylee now works with controlled agriculture in her internship with NASA. In August 2021, Kaylee began work as a space crop production intern. She works with experts whose mission is to grow vegetation in space, specifically for NASA’s transit mission to Mars
“A lot of what I do specifically at NASA is trying to push the agenda for getting crops, not just plants on long duration missions.”
Kaylee explains that one of NASA’s main issues, is supplying food for the 3-year mission to Mars, since they cannot utilize prepackaged food for a mission of that length. While the idea of growing crops in space is great, there are certain obstacles in the way, one being getting water to the crops.
“It's really hard to deliver water in space because of microgravity. That would be a gap is figuring out how to get water to plants efficiently or figuring out what the right lighting treatment is.”
Kaylee knows it is going to be a lot of work to get exactly where she wants to be but she is also determined to make room for some play along the way.
“I love to go scuba diving. I’ve been to Bora Bora, Turks and Caicos, Hawaii and the Dominican Republic. Eventually I want to dive with sharks.”
In the meantime, Kaylee encourages her peers that it is ok to take the path less traveled and expand their horizons.
“You look at our career fairs and it’s either huge consulting companies or manufacturing and it’s ok if you don’t like that stuff. Research is always around.”
By Eryn Oldham