High School Student Survives Cancer While Assisting with Cotton Research
By Lynette Wilson
After school on any given day, there is an equal chance of finding 18-year-old high school senior Luke Kitten working on the family cotton farm east of Lubbock, Texas, or performing complex cotton research in a state-of-the-art, $2-million-dollar lab at a major university.
A student at Trinity Christian High School in Lubbock, Luke made history in the science world last year by being one of the youngest students ever to assist in a research project at The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) at Texas Tech University.
Research completed by Luke and his colleague, Ronald “Ronnie” Kendall Jr., a senior from Lubbock Coronado High School, contributed to a paper on oil absorption by cotton nonwovens. The teenage duo presented the findings at two highly regarded scientific gatherings, the Technical Association of Pulp and Paper Industry Conference and the Beltwide Cotton Conference, where they impressed experts in both industries by fielding questions from the crowd. And in the midst of it all, Luke battled Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“Our son was diagnosed with lymphoma in March of 2011,” explained Luke’s mother, Janet Kitten. “He began flight lessons and started working in the TIEHH lab the same week he began chemotherapy. He already had a strong attitude and was fiercely competitive, but it was like Luke took his life up a notch just to prove his strength. I think keeping as busy as he could in the lab and in his lessons helped keep his mind off of his illness,” she said.
Luke completed his treatments in August 2011 and has received positive reports from his doctors, according to his father Jeffery Kitten, a partner in the family owned cotton farming operation, Kitten Land Company.
“Since my treatment is done, I go to school, ride my dirt bike, go hunting, snowboarding, wakeboarding, and do flight training,” Luke said. “Mostly during the summer, I help out at the farm, and during the school year I usually spend from 12 to 15 hours a week working on our research at the lab.”
Under the supervision of Texas Tech University Graduate Student and Research Assistant Vinit Singh, Luke and Ronnie have enjoyed the opportunity to continue a research project conceived by Dr. Seshadri Ramkumar, Associate Professor specializing in technical textiles in the Department of Environmental Toxicology at Texas Tech University. Dr. Ramkumar also supervises the Nonwoven and Advanced Materials Laboratory at TIEHH.
Dr. Ramkumar’s research focuses on developing value added applications for discounted, low micronaire cotton and is supported, in part, by the Texas High Plains cotton industry. TIEHH has produced a nonwoven fabric made from low micronaire cotton that provides a green, environmentally safe, biodegradable product that could be highly successful in protecting and decontaminating coastal lands and wildlife after an oil spill. Dr. Ramkumar and Singh found the immature, low micronaire cotton absorbs more oil than higher quality cotton, and to prove it, they enlisted the help of the high school students to assist in conducting research in 2011.
Since they began working in the TIEHH lab, the boys have performed numerous experiments to gather data on the low micronaire cotton obtained from Plains Cotton Cooperative Association and Kitten Land Company. They continue to work on Ramkumar’s projects and eventually hope to commercially produce some of their own products.
“The idea of young students like Luke and Ronnie presenting papers at national and international meetings is literally unheard of,” said Ronald J. Kendall, Ph.D., and TIEHH Director. “I compliment Ramkumar, an innovative and well-published scientist, for opening his lab to these young students, and I really believe he’s been inspired by their fresh new ideas and ability to look at things differently,” Kendall continued.
“My experience at TIEHH has been amazing,” Luke said. “I’ve really learned how to work with different groups of people with common goals and find a way to make it all come together. It has been great to uncover some neat scientific results that will potentially help the cotton industry and the farmers in our area,” he concluded.
Upon graduation, Luke decided to begin a dual major in physics and either mechanical or civil engineering. Making the final decision on a college destination is a bit trickier. Luke has been accepted to Texas Tech University, Texas A&M, and the Colorado School of Mines, and scholarship offers have just begun to trickle in.
“The staff at TIEHH has been wonderful,” Janet said. “Luke has gained valuable experience and has a new level of confidence. A year ago I wouldn’t have thought I’d feel this way, but I must admit I’ll be happy no matter what college he chooses to attend. I’m just incredibly excited Luke has the opportunity to choose a college and to plan a future after all he’s been through. Our family is truly blessed.”