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Thiessen's Science Taking Off

For Second Time, Sophomore Will Have Experiments on Space Shuttle

Kristopher J. Thiessen may be just 18 years old, but his career as a scientist is taking off. Literally.

The Harvard sophomore is spending the month at Cape Canaveral, Fla., making last-minute adjustments to a protein crystal growth experiment to be launched on the space shuttle Endeavor, scheduled for liftoff perhaps as early as the end of August.

This is not the first time Thiessen, a Crimson editor, has sent his research aboard a NASA flight.

In March, his experiments were carried aboarrd the Shuttle Endeavor STS-67. However, because of a refrigeration problem, the crystals didn't grow very well.

A biochemistry concentrator and resident of the Quad, Thiessen has attracted wide-spread media attention because of his work. Stories about Thiessen have been carried in several local papers and on the Associated Press news wire.

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"I am looking forward, with great anticipation, to this opportunity to gain unprecedented results from the crystallization of biological macromolecules in gels in microgravity spacecraft," Thiessen said.

Thiessen said the crystals he is researching have the potential to help in developing cures for AIDS, psoriasis, cancer and arthritis.

Proteins are essential to all life processes, and scientists need to understand how protein molecules are constructed at the molecular level, Thiessen wrote in a press release. Growing the proteins in crystal from will allow scientists to study protein structure more easily.

"Growing these high-quality protein crystals has traditionally been difficult for researchers here on Earth because of many undesirable effects caused by gravity," he said.

To offset the negative effects of gravity on protein crystal growth, Thiessen developed a method of growing protein crystals in a substance called agarose gel, which is similar in texture to Jell-O.

The gelatin compensates for many of the effects of gravity on crystal growth, but sending the experiment into a micro-gravity environment on the space shuttle will help crystal growth even more.

Thiessen will also have experiments on the first flight of METEOR, a 27-day, unmanned recovery spacecraft, scheduled to launch on August 10 from Wallops Island, Virginia.

Thiessen said his interest with crystals began in the fifth grade when a friend's mother showed him a NASA fact sheet on protein crystal growth in space.

"I thought 'Wow, this was pretty neat," saidThiessen, whose mother subsequently bought him atoy crystal growing kit.

As the crystal grew, so did his fascination. Inthe summer of 1991, after ninth grade--he skippedeight grade--Thiessen worked with crystal lographyresearchers at the University of Alabama inBirmingham.

Since then, Thiessen has conducted more than2,500 crystal growth experiments--many of them inhis parents' kitchen.

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