Sara Kokkila

College of Saint Benedict
Saint Joseph, MN

Chemistry and Mathematics

Principal Investigator: DR. Timothy J. Lee
Project: Theoretical Chemistry Approach to Determine Properties of the Azirinyl Cation and Its Significant Isomers

Education and Experience:

When I was eight years old, my family visited the Kennedy Space Center. To my surprise, the tour began with a greeting from Lucy, a robot. This seemed to be straight out of a book or a world of imagination. From this point on, I secretly dreamed of working for NASA.

As I continued with school, my interest in science grew. Currently, I am a chemistry and mathematics double major at the College of Saint Benedict in cooperation with Saint John's University. I started on a track for pre-medicine, but I had not forgotten my dream to work for NASA. I stumbled across the application for NASA's Undergraduate Student Research Program and I realized that if I never tried, I would never know if this dream could become reality. I applied and was accepted into the USRP program at NASA Ames.

My research in the Undergraduate Student Research Program involved using theoretical chemistry techniques to gain better understanding of certain types of compounds that are released into the atmosphere. We ran calculations for over three hundred different compounds that are known greenhouse gases. From this information, we created models that can be used by the industry to design less detrimental compounds based on the placement and number of certain kinds of atoms. The work I did last summer changed my life and my direction in it. From that point on, I decided to no longer pursue medical school, but to instead apply to graduate schools in order to continue doing research.

In addition to my USRP research, I just completed an honors thesis in both math and chemistry, researching the area of enzyme kinetics. I studied how the amount of product from an enzyme system changes over time and then developed mathematical models for different types of enzyme inhibition. These different models can be fit to data sets monitoring the change in amount of product or reactant over time. From this, certain constants that are otherwise difficult to determine can be found easily determined from the fitted models.

Besides my interests in chemistry and mathematics, I am involved with several groups on campus. Throughout my college career, I have been heavily involved in the theater department. My junior year, the theater department made me an honorary theater major because of my extensive involvement in theater productions in areas such as dancing, acting, and costuming. I was also an officer for the campus Drama Club for several years and only recently gave up my presidency to a rising senior. I am also an active member of the campus Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society, Delta Epsilon Sigma Honor Society, Math Society, and Chemistry Club. I am interested in traveling and was able to study abroad in Greece and Italy spending half the semester in Athens and the other half in Rome.

I will be graduating this May with a B.A. in chemistry and mathematics, as well as receiving honors in both fields of study. Next fall, I begin my graduate studies at Stanford University to ultimately receive a Ph.D. in chemistry. I am excited to further develop leadership and researching skills at the NASA Academy and to explore the possibilities with fellow Academy members and leaders. I believe that this experience will help me with my future goal of a research career at NASA.