Could an apple a day really keep the doctor away? What about raspberries or kale?
Setka’s focus is on leafy, green kale, specifically the nutritional differences between kale grown in soil and kale grown directly in nutrient rich water, a style known as hydroponics.
“I chose kale because it’s become a really popular superfood without very much research into why it’s considered that,” she said.
Setka cultivates kale, other salad greens and herbs as a hydroponic farmer for Georgia State’s Leafy Green Machine, located in a converted freight container, just behind Piedmont North. Inside, there are 250 vertical towers—each one with the capacity to hold ten plants—giving Setka the ability to grow thousands of fresh vegetables year round. The hydroponic set-up allows the plants’ roots to receive water and nutrients directly, and whatever water is not immediately absorbed gets recycled and reused.
“It’s really opened my eyes to the connections between technology and nature and sustainability,” she said.
Her research involves extracting phytochemicals—micronutrient compounds in plants that can help human bodies combat damage from bacteria, inflammation or cancer—from kale grown in different ways and determining which kind has the most.
“To me, undergraduate research has been very exciting and has helped me further my curiosity,” Setka said. “It’s given me a way to take what I’m learning from hydroponic farming a step further. I get to pursue what I want to learn about and that freedom is so profound.”
Setka said she hopes to further her research in graduate school. Her next step would be inserting phytochemicals extracted from kale into mammal cells to see if the phytochemicals could reverse or prevent or even treat heart disease.
Meanwhile, Carmichael’s attention is on vibrantly colored berries. She is measuring and identifying the concentration of phytochemicals in strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. Because scientists already know that phytochemicals offer protective health benefits to humans, determining how much and what type each kind of berry contains could help nutritionists and other health care workers advise patients on which foods to eat to stay in good health.
“I’ve always been interested in how our lifestyle can prevent chronic diseases and create a better life for us,” Carmichael said.
Like her colleague Setka, Carmichael plans to build on her research in graduate school by investigating how the phytochemicals found in berries might help our hearts by protecting the linings of our arteries.
Through the Honors College’s Just in Time fund, which is supported by Georgia State’s emeriti faculty, Setka and Carmichael were able to purchase the supplies they needed to conduct their honors thesis research.
“The funding was extremely important because I needed antibodies and cells and proteins, and without all of that, I wouldn’t have been able to start my research project at all,” Setka said. “And those supplies are actually very expensive. They’re not items that I could pay for as an undergraduate.”