Honors College student to join astronauts, innovators in Washington D.C.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. —An Honors College student is helping Purdue University continue its leadership in science and technology as a 2017-18 Astronaut Scholar.  On Saturday, Sept. 16 Caleigh Roleck will join more than a dozen astronauts and her 44 fellow Astronaut Scholars to celebrate innovation in the STEM fields. The prestigious Astronaut Scholarship is one of the most significant national awards for undergraduate STEM students.  It recognizes initiative, creativity and academic excellence. In addition to honoring Roleck and the Astronaut Scholars, the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation will present the inaugural Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence at the Washington D.C. gala. Armstrong earned an aeronautical engineering degree at Purdue, often called the “cradle of astronauts,” before becoming the first human to set foot on the moon.

Caleigh Roleck, Honors College student and Astronaut Scholar

Roleck studies biochemistry in the College of Science and is pursing minors in statistics and biotechnology.  The Huntley, Illinois native hopes to channel a childhood fascination with cells into an applied research career.  Roleck would like to explore the potential of biomolecules to solve global and national problems as a government or military scientist. She is particularly interested in investigating issues of biofuel production, biosensing, biomanufacturing and combating antibiotic resistance.

“Caleigh is a great example of an Honors College student who is striving to impact society as a whole, in addition to making her mark on the scientific community,” Honors College Dean Rhonda Phillips said.  “Astronaut Scholars have launched payloads into space, studied distant galaxies through the Hubble Space Telescope, worked on the Mars Rover missions, trained astronauts, researched alternative energy devices and much more.  We are excited to see what the future holds for Caleigh.”

“I believe that being an Astronaut Scholar will help me achieve my career goals, as this prestigious award can help me secure future internships, positions in graduate school and jobs,” Roleck said.  “Additionally, there is a large network of Astronaut Scholars from previous years, and I am excited to begin networking with them to receive career advice.”

Roleck is laying a foundation for her future by participating in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition.  As part of Purdue’s iGEM team, she used biologically engineered strains of E. coli to remove ecologically unsound amounts of phosphorus in wastewater.  During the project, Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering Kevin Solomon says Roleck confirmed the successful cloning, expression and activity of several genes, most notably identifying the behavior of a putative gene, or segment of DNA whose protein and function was previously unknown.

“She is incredibly independent and self-motivated, successfully making progress in her project without direct supervision,” Solomon explained.

“Caleigh was a scientific leader in the group, highly productive in the laboratory and determined to conduct proper statistical testing of her data as to not over interpret,” added Jenna Rickus, Purdue professor of agricultural and biological engineering.  “She was able to acquire characterization data on novel genes, which is a scientific achievement with significant value beyond the student competition.”

Roleck is the treasurer of Purdue’s Pugwash chapter, an organization dedicated to social responsibility and ethics in science.  She also conducts research in the lab of Edwin Umbarger Distinguished Professor of Biology Stan Gelvin, studying the ability of a type of soil bacterium to naturally genetically engineer plants.

To earn an Astronaut Scholarship, a student must be nominated by a University-wide Purdue committee and apply through the National and International Scholarships Office, housed in Purdue Honors College. Informational sessions for sophomore and junior applicants will be held later this month.

*About the Astronaut Scholarship: The Astronaut Scholarship is funded by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF), a nonprofit organization created by the Mercury 7 astronauts in 1984. The foundation strives to aid the U.S. in retaining its world leadership in science and technology by providing scholarships to the very best and brightest college students pursuing degrees in STEM majors at select institutions. The foundation selects member institutions based on their history of producing significant numbers of professional scientists, academic scientists, engineers, and researchers. Purdue is a member institution and thus eligible to nominate students for the Astronaut Scholarship.