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Boise State Team Gears up for NASA’s 2011 Microgravity University

By:    Published 11:17 am / June 1, 2011

Boise State’s 2011 Microgravity University team is gearing up for its nine-day adventure and experiment at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Beginning June 2, the interdisciplinary research team representing several departments in the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering will study 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.

Follow the team’s experience — including its test operations on board the “Weightless Wonder,” an aircraft that flies extreme parabolic maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico to simulate hypergravity and microgravity — on their blog.

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. 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 experiment is much more complex than any the students have done before,” said Barbara Morgan, a former NASA astronaut and Boise State’s educator in residence, who worked to inspire and prepare students and faculty members for the trip. In addition to the science of the experiment and uniqueness of the environment, the students fabricated their own instruments to get the measurements they need for the study. “We know people lose bone mass while traveling in space. This experiment gets at the mechanism of why that happens,” she said.

“This is graduate and doctoral level research being done by an excellent group of undergraduates,” said Sondra Miller, a faculty advisor and professor of engineering at Boise State. “They are doing a fantastic job.”

The Microgravity University experience includes hands-on experimental research, educational outreach and interaction with some of the world’s top technical minds. 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 Miller (civil engineering).

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 Morgan.

For a list of project abstracts and links to other Microgravity University programs, click here.