Science & Technology

USU Student Wins Award for Research That Could Help Plants Grow in Space

By Ysabel Nehring |

Utah State University has long been involved in research growing plants in space labs such as the International Space Station. Recently Ph.D. student Chihiro Naruke's was recognized for her research here on Earth that could help researchers design the ideal conditions for growing plants in microgravity.

Chihiro Naruke, a Ph.D. student in Utah State University’s Department of Plants, Soils & Climate, was awarded first prize in her division at the American Geophysical Union conference for presenting her findings on how root growth affects the pore space of soil. Naruke’s research is aimed at predicting and designing the ideal plant growth system in microgravity conditions.

She was awarded first prize for her presentation in the Unsaturated Zone domain of the student competition, which included a cash prize of $350. Described as “the most influential event in the world dedicated to the advancement of Earth and space sciences,” the AGU conference took place virtually and in-person with over 25,000 attendees from more than 100 countries and brought together researchers, scientists, educators, students and policymakers. The organization’s members aim to gain and communicate greater understanding of our planet and environment and our role in preserving its future.

The AGU conference was the second presentation for Naruke during the fall 2021 semester. She previously won fourth place for a combined oral and poster presentation on related research focused on microgravity growing conditions at the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America International Annual Meeting that took place in Salt Lake City in November.

“Presenting at the SSSA conference was a great experience, and I was able to relax a bit more when I was presenting at the AGU,” Naruke said. “Presenting at both conferences were milestones in my motivation toward research, and I can use this experience to improve my work and future presentations.”

Naruke shared that she decided to attend USU because of the agricultural opportunities available in the United States and recommendations from her master's degree adviser, Masaru Sakai, at Mie University in Japan. Sakai previously worked as a post-doctoral fellow at USU in the Environmental Soil Physics Lab. USU has a decadeslong record of research focused on growing plants aboard spacecraft, both in studying specific plants and developing the chambers in which they can grow. The ability to produce food in space is a critical part of preparing for long-term space exploration and presents many challenges, including optimizing lighting, temperature control and delivering nutrients and moisture to plants’ root zones when liquids and other materials don’t behave in microgravity as they do on Earth.

Despite an initial lack of funding for her specific research, Naruke chose to come to USU. She also worked hard on her English skills as it was her second language.

“I am impressed with how rapid the transformation in her writing, reading and speaking abilities has been,” said Professor Scott Jones, an environmental soils physicist who serves as her faculty adviser. “This award is much more appreciated and deserved considering English is her second language.”

Jones shared that one of the most rewarding aspects of working as a faculty member comes from mentoring students and helping them publish their first papers.

“That feat generally comes with a lot of hard work, frequent frustration, and substantial satisfaction when the final manuscript is finally accepted,” Jones said. “Chihiro is now working under a NASA grant and published her first peer-reviewed manuscript in August, and has several other papers in development.”

Chihiro Naruke presents her research at a conference.

Chihiro Naruke (Photo by Ilah Hickman)


Ysabel Nehring


Chihiro Naruke
Ph.D. Student
USU Dept. of Plants, Soils & Climate

Scott Jones
Department of Plant, Soils and Climate

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