Student's Curiosity Leads to Discovery

Researcher Elizabeth Lester Researcher Elizabeth Lester
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October 23, 2002

Much like her childhood hero, the mischievous and inquisitive monkey "Curious George," and his undying desire to learn about new things in his world, curiosity is something that Elizabeth Lester has always had in great supply.

"My earliest childhood memories are of me sitting in front of the hall mirror examining my tongue and pondering on how it worked and why it looked like it did," recalls Lester, a senior studying microbiology at Baylor University, Waco, Texas.

Beginner's Luck?

Her desire to understand how things work might provide us with an over-the-counter device that detects deadly bacterial spores, such as anthrax. Over the summer, at the tender age of 21, she worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on a device to detect bacterial spores. Much to her surprise, the research yielded big results that led to her authoring a paper on the subject in a major journal. The California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA even filed a patent on the technology and a public company is investing money to make the technology commercially available for broader public use.

Lester, who is part Choctaw Indian, participated in a Caltech program that gives talented undergraduates the opportunity to spend up to 10 weeks working with professional researchers. The program, called Minority Undergraduate Research Fellowships, brought Lester under the guidance of Dr. Adrian Ponce, a chemist and a senior member of the technical staff at JPL.

Using harmless spores that were aerosolized to simulate an anthrax attack, the two successfully tested the viability of a device capable of detecting bacterial spores in the atmosphere. Acting much like a smoke detector, the device promises to sound an advance warning if high concentrations of bacterial spores are detected, possibly saving lives.

The results of these tests are detailed in a paper published in the Oct. 11, 2002, issue of Engineering in Medicine and Biology, a magazine published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering.

Anthrax "smoke" detectors may eventually be available commercially thanks to this research and to a partnership between JPL and Universal Detection Technology. Based in Beverly Hills, Calif., the company is a provider of environmental monitoring technologies. The anthrax detector will combine JPL spore detection technology with Universal's aerosol capture device. The partnership between Universal Detection Technology and JPL is possible through JPL's Technology Affiliates Program, a program designed to transfer JPL knowledge to the private sector in order to benefit the public.

Getting an Early Start

Beginning in kindergarten and throughout her academic career, Lester was involved with science fairs and various research projects, from studying rust protection of coatings to researching the connection between genetics and behavior in crawfish.

"Everything about life has always intrigued me, especially about what is involved when life doesn't work as planned," Lester says. "I continually feed my curiosity by reading what others have to say about life and its development."

"I wanted to get a degree in criminal law and become a forensic pathologist to have the opportunity to help those people that are in the greatest need, a need to find closure for their families," she says.

Inspiring America's Youth
The opportunity to do research at JPL revitalized Lester's love for scientific research. It also changed her career goals.

"Through my opportunity to immerse myself into a research lab I have rediscovered my love for scientific research. I now plan to pursue a doctorate in bioengineering and further discoveries into the technologies used in everyday lives to improve the life one has," Lester says.

The Minority Undergraduate Research Fellowships program is aimed at improving the representation of African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans and Pacific Islanders in science and engineering. The program allows students to conduct research either at Caltech or at JPL in various scientific disciplines including: biology, chemistry and chemical engineering, computation and neural system, engineering, humanities, and social sciences, physics, math, astronomy, and Earth and space sciences.

JPL/Carolina Martinez (818) 354-9382

Images

Lester works with spore detector

Lester works with spore detector

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