Spokane astronomer competes for title of King of the Nerds

Spokane astronomer Kayla LaFrance hopes to help run missions to Mars or even walk on the Red Planet herself one day. Her short-term goal is to be recognized as one of the nation’s top geeks. LaFrance, a member of the Spokane Astronomical Society, will be a contestant on the second season of the television show “King of the Nerds,” which airs on TBS beginning Jan. 23. It’s not just a title; the person proclaimed monarch of dweebiness will receive a prize of $100,000.

Kayla LaFrance

Kayla LaFrance. Photo courtesy of Trae Patton, Turner Entertainment Networks.

LaFrance isn’t your garden-variety nerd; while she describes herself as a “typical kid out of college with no career,” she has legitimate astronomy credibility. In May 2012 she finished work on her master’s degree in space studies at the University of North Dakota, where she did independent research on the organization of Mission Control for the surface exploration of Mars. She earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics, with minors in mathematics and public relations, from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Those raised on Sesame Street may be thinking that one of those things is not like the others, but for LaFrance the PR minor meshed well with her interests.

“Sidewalk astronomy has always been a huge part of what I really enjoy doing,” LaFrance explained. “I thought public relations would be a good way to help me hone my skills at the telescope—helping little kids get into astronomy, helping parents figure out what’s going on, dealing with conspiracy theorists—it’s been a very big part of my time with the astronomy club.”

The Astronomical League has recognized LaFrance for her enthusiasm for outreach, twice presenting her with its Jack Horkheimer Award for Exceptional Service by a Young Astronomer—a first place award in 2003, and second place in 2002. More than a decade ago, the league’s articles about the awards noted LaFrance’s plan to visit Mars.

Star Trek captured LaFrance’s fancy when she was a little girl, and she’s been hooked on space ever since. Her seventh-grade teacher at Greenacres Junior High in Spokane Valley, Thomas Herrmann, launched her on her astronomy trajectory.

“[He] challenged me to stop looking at just the TV and start looking at what was really up there,” LaFrance said of Herrmann. “He showed me stuff with his telescope and started everything.”

She joined the Spokane Astronomical Society shortly thereafter and has been an active participant ever since, excepting for when she has been away at college. She frequently gives talks to the club, usually about Mars.

LaFrance made the cut for “King of the Nerds” last year, but passed when an even cooler opportunity presented itself. She scored an internship with the NASA Ames Academy for Space Exploration, where she did research on composites that represent science’s best guess about what Mars soil is like, based on data from various robotic missions. She was free for season two of the program, the producers were still interested, and she filmed episodes of the show last summer in Los Angeles.

“It was the best experience that I’ve participated in to date, and I’ve done some pretty cool stuff and seen some cool stuff,” LaFrance said. “I loved every moment of it. It was also the most challenging and stressful event of my life.”

LaFrance said her focus on Mars stems from her interest in human space exploration.

“The next logical step, in my opinion, is Mars, so I devoted a lot of my research time in college to the purpose of sending humans to Mars,” she said. “I’ve long been fascinated my Mission Control and how they operate and how they support crews in space. Of course if I could go into space I would definitely do it, but ultimately I would like to be flight director for missions on Mars.”

LaFrance plans to pursue a Ph.D. degree some day, but figures she needs more practical experience first, so will be looking for work with government or private agencies involved in aerospace and mission operations.

In the meantime, watch for her on “King of the Nerds.” The program, hosted by Robert Carradine and Curtis Armstrong, two of the stars of the 1984 film “Revenge of the Nerds” and its sequels, airs Thursday nights beginning Jan. 23. It will be on at 10 p.m. in Spokane, but, as they say, check your local listings. Keep an eye on Mission Control, too. I wouldn’t be surprised to see LaFrance turn up there sooner than later.

Follow LaFrance on Facebook and Twitter, and check out her bio video for “King of the Nerds” below.