WSSU student awarded NC Space Grant to fuel her research in growing crops in space

STEM Bridge Scholar program aims to diversify science workforce

Winston-Salem State University student A’nya Buckner of Morrisville is unleashing her genius out of this world.

The junior biology major with a chemistry minor has been selected by the N.C. Space Grant as one of the 2023-2024 Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) STEM Bridge Scholars.

“NC Space Grant’s goal is to encourage students from all backgrounds to study space-related STEM fields and provide them with the knowledge and skills to pursue their academic research and careers so that the STEM workforce becomes more inclusive and diverse,” said Sandy Canfield, the program’s assistant director, in a press release. “Thus, we are pleased to offer these scholarships.” 

Students will participate in research that ranges from artificial intelligence to curing cancer to exploring the unknown frontiers of space, according to NC Space Grant. The scholarships ultimately inspire students to explore research territories of NASA mission directorates – AeronauticsExploration Systems DevelopmentMission SupportScienceSpace Operations and Space Technology – during their academic careers and beyond. 

Buckner has her sights set on growing plants in space. “I plan to use this scholarship to advance my undergraduate lab experience, learning more about terrestrial vegetation in space,” she said. “Through the NC Space Grant, I will be able to conduct research and scientific experiments to improve discoveries in microgravity.”

She is a part of the WSSU Astrobotany Lab, which only accepts a limited number of students. In simple terms, astrobotany is the study of plants in off-world conditions.

A’nya Buckner

Through a partnership with NASA, driven by Rafael Loureiro, Ph.D., assistant biology professor at WSSU, the Astrobotany Lab provides students with opportunities to work with NASA and shadow scientists and researchers at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.

Buckner aspires to grow crops in space and on the International Space Station. “The opportunity to contribute to research projects such as astrobotany excites me greatly,” she said. “From my research, I have found very fascinating advancements related to NASA. This includes the commercial space exploration and the research being done on the International Space Station.”

The MSI STEM scholarships are offered to undergraduate students at MSIs and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The Bridge scholarship supports the advancement of students’ academic and career pathways. There is a second grant called Pathways that aids students early in their STEM studies.

She will join scholars representing six other North Carolina MSI or HBCU institutions, including Fayetteville State, NC A&T State, N.C. Central, St. Augustine’s, Elizabeth City State and N.C. Pembroke universities.

With a boost of experience and confidence from this scholarship, it has been incredibly rewarding to witness our MSI STEM scholars earn internships with NASA, receive new scholarships from NC Space Grant and other sources, gain acceptance into graduate schools, and start their STEM careers,” Canfield said.