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Boise State Research Team Among 14 Nationwide Selected for NASA’s Microgravity University 2011

By:    Published 9:22 am / December 23, 2010

Some members of the Microgravity University 2011 team gathered in the College of Engineering to discuss the plan looking forward to Flight Week in June. Left to right, they are Barbara Morgan, David Connolly, Robert Hay, Jake Forsberg, Ben Davis, Dawn Mikelonis, Stephanie Frahs, Sondra Miller and Ellen Rabenberg.

Boise State students and faculty are gearing up for one of the greatest educational adventures on the planet — or off, as the case may be.

An interdisciplinary research team representing several departments in the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering has been accepted into NASA’s Microgravity University 2011. The foundation of their study is the serious issue of bone density loss suffered by astronauts who endure long periods of weightlessness. Using the fluctuation of calcium molecules in bone cells as a real-time indicator, the team will collect information on the body’s response to the environmental stress of microgravity.

This is the third consecutive year Boise State teams have participated in Microgravity University and the first time one has been selected for the highly competitive, traditional undergraduate program, which challenges students to propose, design, fabricate, fly and evaluate a reduced gravity experiment that aligns with NASA’s mission.

The experiments will be conducted June 2-11 during Flight Week at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The Boise State team will be joined by peers from Yale University, California Institute of Technology, California Polytechnic University, George Washington University, Utah State University, University of Washington, West Virginia University, University of Florida, Lehigh University, State University of New York at Buffalo, Oklahoma State University, Dartmouth College and Purdue University.

The Microgravity University experience includes hands-on experimental research, educational outreach, interaction with some of the world’s top technical minds, and test operations onboard the “Weightless Wonder.” The aircraft flies extreme parabolic maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico, simulating hypergravity and microgravity, from two times the force on Earth to what you would feel walking on the moon and floating in the total vacuum of space. This environmental shift is the basis of Boise State’s investigation.

It is the culmination of nearly two years of work, particularly by team leader and senior Jake Forsberg (computer science), 2010 graduate Ben Davis (biology), and faculty advisors Robert Hay (electrical and computer engineering), Julie Oxford (biology) and Sondra Miller (civil engineering).

“In order to prevent and treat the degradation of bone density, it’s crucial to identify regulatory mechanisms on the cellular level,” said Davis. “The science community has identified individual parts but not how the whole system works.”

With better understanding of that system will come guidelines to increase the efficacy of resistance exercise methods to stave off the unique stress that afflicts astronauts as well as those confined to extended bed rest.

“Bone density loss is not just a problem for people living on the International Space Station. It’s quite terrestrial as well,” said Hay, who believes the blend of expertise on the team is key to the experiment’s success and expansion. “Major advances in technology happen at the intersection of disciplines. It’s hard to step outside our narrow parts of the world, and this kind of collaboration forces us to look at things from a different perspective.”

Essential to the team’s dynamic perspective are its additional members, including senior Ron Pierce (electrical engineering), senior Travis Dean (mechanical engineering), junior Stephanie Frahs (chemistry), sophomore David Connolly (mechanical engineering), sophomore Dawn Mikelonis (biology), graduate student Ellen Rabenberg (materials science and engineering) and recent graduate and Microgravity University veteran Alex Miller (materials science and engineering). Initially advised by former Boise State engineering professor Vidya Nandikolla, the team now looks to faculty mentors Hay, Oxford and Miller as well as former NASA astronaut Barbara Morgan, who has used her role as Boise State’s distinguished educator in residence to inspire and help students across campus take advantage of NASA opportunities.

“Our 2011 Microgravity University team is looking at some basic biological questions in a new way, and a lot will be learned from their exploration,” Morgan said. “Like any good science, I hope it leads to more questions and opens doors for these students and those who will follow in their powerful footsteps.”

For more about the team and project, visit the blog. For a list of all 14 selectees, project abstracts and links to other Microgravity University programs, visit the NASA site.