Montana State University

MSU student wins first place in a national science and engineering competition

January 17, 2011 -- Melynda Harrison, MSU News Service


MSU mechanical engineering student Jordan Kennedy uses a rheometer to study the physical properties of gels in a lab at MSU. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.)   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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A Montana State University student who grew up on a ranch between Cut Bank and Browning beat out students from across the country to win first place in a national science and engineering competition recently.

Jordan Kennedy, a mechanical engineering sophomore and first generation descendent of Blackfeet, won first in both the oral and poster presentation at the National American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) conference in Albuquerque in November.

"It's very rare for a student to win both national awards," said Marjorie Old Horn, director of American Indian Research Opportunities (AIRO) at MSU.

Kennedy was recruited to MSU to study engineering by EMPower (Engineering Minority Program). EMPower encourages the involvement of women and minorities in the field of engineering. Kennedy spent her first summer interning with the Western Transportation Institute and then her first year in engineering with the Designing Our Community/EMPower program where she received a scholarship.

After a couple of successful semesters Kennedy added an AIRO scholarship to her funding sources. AIRO is a consortium of Montana's seven Tribal Colleges and MSU dedicated to providing opportunities for American Indian students in career fields where they are significantly underrepresented.

She is also a McNair Scholar, one of 25 MSU undergraduates who are either first-generation college students, low-income or traditionally underrepresented minorities who have demonstrated strong academic potential and are committed to attending graduate school and pursuing an advanced degree. As part of the MSU McNair program, students are given financial support for summer projects and paired with a faculty mentor.

Kennedy is working with Jennifer Brown, assistant professor in chemical and biological engineering, to study the liquidity and solidity of gels--scientifically known as rheology.

"Jordan is really motivated to take initiative and generate her own ideas," Brown said. "She analyzes, thinks in depth and comes up with independent ideas."

Kennedy is working with two polysaccharides--a class of carbohydrates--that when mixed together form a gel that is stronger than any one component and that changes properties when heated or cooled. Kennedy and Brown combined xanthan gum and locust bean gum to create something entirely different than the sum of the parts. The property of mixing two components to create one with different properties is one of the reasons they're useful, according to Brown.

"We haven't worked with this system in our lab before," said Brown. "Jordan is getting the procedures down and making the measurements repeatable so we can move on to the next stage of the work."

The next stage takes place spring semester when Kennedy will be adding nanoparticles to gels, which is of interest in modeling how drugs are dispersed in medicine.

Understanding gel parameters will also aid in designing tissue scaffolds, where the gel is seeded with cells and serves as a support for tissue regeneration. Material properties like stiffness can be tuned to accommodate different tissue types or possibly encourage the development of a certain cell type from stem cells.

"I had no idea what rheology was when I started," Kennedy said. "I wanted to get started in research and I learned as I went along. It turned out to be something I am really interested in."

In addition to her two first place wins at the AISES conference, she also took home an internship. During a career fair held in conjunction with the conference, Kennedy was offered a summer internship with GE Healthcare in Milwaukee.

Kennedy credits much of her success to the doors that opened for her once at MSU.

"I've gotten so much out of coming to MSU," Kennedy said. "There are so many opportunities, such as undergraduate research, that you wouldn't get a bigger school. And the faculty are great, both in research and in classes."

Elizabeth Brock at 406-994-1564 or ebrock@coe.montana.edu