January 15, 2014 Updated: January 17, 2014 at 11:24 am
She hasn't discovered a cure for tuberculosis, but 21-year-old Jessica Kenneson's scientific breakthrough could help other researchers do just that.
"It just kind of happened," she said. "It's been very exciting."
A Colorado Springs native who is working toward a chemistry degree at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas, Kenneson was selected by her professors for a summer student research program.
That's when she made an important discovery.
While studying DNA and drug-resistant mutations related to tuberculosis, Kenneson created a cheaper and more efficient way to capture illuminated images emitted during the research process.
"It was a trial-and-error kind of thing," she said.
Imagers are usually customized for documenting different research techniques, Kenneson said, but the system she designed, with the help of her chemistry professor Robert Moore, can do at least five.
"It is sort of a breakthrough, to be able to do so many techniques with one system, instead of having to buy separate imagers," Kenneson said.
The custom-built system uses a camera that's connected to a laptop. The cost difference: $10,000 to create their imaging system, compared with paying $40,000 apiece for others, such as a super-cooled charge-coupled device camera.
"A simple solution for a complex issue," is how Dimitri Pappas, a professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, described the new system, which he said he plans to test on one of his research projects involving microchips that can do biological analysis for cancer drug testing.
Kenneson hopes other universities can benefit from her discovery by building their own in-house versions. In November, she presented the her new imager to a group of graduate researchers at a meeting of the Southwest Regional American Chemical Society in Waco, Texas.
"I had submitted to just present a poster but was asked to give a talk, which was very cool," she said.
She's also working on an article for possible publication in an analytical journal.
The daughter of a Baptist pastor, Kenneson grew up in Colorado Springs and attended the Colorado Springs Christian Schools. A high school biology teacher there piqued her interest in science, but Kenneson thought it would be too hard to pursue.
"I was passionate about it, but I wrote it off," she said.
Intending to turn her love of doodling into a graphic design career, Kenneson instead decided to follow her dream of becoming a scientist after visiting the university.
"It felt like family - it was more than just Southern hospitality," she said. "The professors care and work hard to get us where we want to be."
Kenneson, a junior this year, wants to work as a medical researcher after graduation.
Doing research requires persistence and patience, she said.
"The thing about research is it never works the first time."