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Monica Torralba studies the effects of plant growth responses to lighting, nutrient and water delivery systems.

With only one elective left to fulfill her chemical engineering degree requirement, Monica Torralba ’18 decided to do something a little unconventional.

“I noticed that a lot of the other chemical engineering students in my class were taking business and marketing electives,” she said. “But I’m more of a hands-on type of person.”

After talking with some friends in the industrial design department in the School of Art + Design, the Bloomingdale, N.J., native and Albert Dorman Honors College student decided to take a mechanics and electronics class.

Sure, the idea of a student with a love for controlled food crop growth taking an advanced research course that explores electronic product design, at first, seems a bit…odd.

But when you pair an ambitious student who has a bold idea for an end-of-semester project with a supportive professor whose work bridges science and engineering with art and design, you’ve got the perfect recipe for a career-defining moment.

“Students who engage in other majors during their education are much better prepared to work on collaborative teams,” said Assistant Professor Mathew Schwartz, who teaches mechanics and electronics at the School of Art + Design at NJIT. “They can better understand the way their team members approach the topic, setting themselves up for a better project outcome and leadership roles in the future.”

Assistant Professor Mathew Schwartz's work bridges science and engineering with art and design.

Although Torralba didn’t know what to expect when she walked into Schwartz’s class, she was excited about the prospect of using mechanics and electronics to make an automated hydroponics system.

Hydroponics, in short, is “a more systemized, controlled way of growing vegetables and plants using water,” explained Torralba. “We’re able to deliver the nutrients found in soil directly to the water.”

While the method of growing plants in a soilless solution – other hydroponic mediums include sand, rocks and perlite – provides access to a healthy diet and affords everyone the opportunity to grow their own vegetables at home, whether in a large outdoor garden or on a small office bookcase, Torralba had her sights set on a much larger setting: outer space.

“When I was looking through all of the projects done on hydroponics, everything focused on plants, and I’m more focused on the systems and chemical engineering aspect.”

As a result, for her mechanics and electronics class project, Torralba developed an automated hydroponics pump system for use in microgravity. Equipped with flow rate control, the device was fashioned using a collapsible tank, stepper motor, soil moisture sensor, LCD display and an Arduino microcontroller.

A side view of Torralba's hydroponics pump system

 

The motor (pictured) and sensors are connected to an Arduino microcontroller.
 
A plant grows inside of a container lined with LED strip lights, while a manufactured sensor measures the moisture levels of the soil inside of a beaker.
 

By the time she started the mechanics and electronics course, Torralba was already applying for a NASA internship.

“I got so excited when I saw that they were looking for interns to help out with plant growth research for food production in space,” she said. “My goal was to create a prototype and conduct a microgravity experiment to see if the system would actually work in space.”

Torralba was certain she was a shoo-in for the job. But after going through the interview process during a spring break trip in Spain, she didn’t make the cut.

“I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been,” she admitted. “But the interviewer encouraged me to apply again for the fall.”

Despite the setback, she stayed the course and continued to fine-tune her project. Subsequently, Schwartz became more interested in her work as it progressed, offering her a summer internship opportunity, which allowed her to diversify her research portfolio.

By working together, the two of them were able to capitalize on opportunities that combined both of their expertise. Schwartz introduced Torralba to Naava, a Finnish-based startup company, which builds plant-covered walls and expressed interest in the microbial research she conducted alongside her adviser Assistant Professor Sagnik Basuray

Soon after, thanks to an introduction by Torralba, Schwartz and Basuray started working on a project together, and have recently submitted a seed grant proposal.

Splitting time between working with Schwartz and developing biosensor devices in the Opto and Microfluidics Lab, Torralba also managed to tighten up her application, polish her interviewing skills and reapply for the NASA internship.

This time she nailed the interview, landing a semester-long internship at the NASA Kennedy Space Center.

Torralba landed a semester-long internship at the NASA Kennedy Space Center.

"Just as the project with Monica opened new doors and possibilities, students taking classes in other majors will often find problems that they can solve in a new way by having a different perspective,” said Schwartz. “In a broader scope, companies and research labs are increasingly expecting applicants to have knowledge in a variety of subjects, especially as collaboration increases.” 

Today, Torralba is part of a group of five interns teaming with scientists who are working to optimize plant growth for space.

“I'm mainly looking into different LED light recipes to determine the best spectrum for growing our crops, and I'll be handling various tasks such as germination, crop maintenance, harvests and chemical analysis,” she said. “I love it.”

When Torralba walks across the stage during commencement next May – with a chemical engineering degree in hand and NASA proudly emblazoned on her resume – she’ll join an elite club of female engineers, who, reportedly, are awarded about 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees, but make up only 13 percent of the engineering workforce.

“We’re going to start to see more women involved in hands-on engineering,” said Torralba. “That’s why I love Girls Who Code and movies like ‘Hidden Figures.’ Women are the driving force behind so many things. Exposing that will help future generations.”

For now, Torralba is proud to represent NJIT at NASA, and credits Schwartz’s course with giving her the extra push she needed to make a splash. “Hydroponics is the field I want to go into after graduation, and I knew I needed to do something fun – and something that had a wow factor. His class was perfect.”

Coming from chemical engineering to industrial design to take a course that would help her develop an idea “is a prime example of a student taking advantage of [studying at a] university,” said Schwartz. “By branching out of a specific major’s required course load, students are able to leverage not just knowledge from a different field, but new faculty and student perspectives as well. The School of Art + Design at NJIT provides a great opportunity for students in any major to learn how to create nearly anything, from digital to physical, that we encounter in our daily lives.”