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Boise State Team Selected for NASA’s Microgravity University

By:    Published 12:44 pm / December 20, 2011

Boise State University students and faculty are gearing up for a research project that is out of this world.

For the fourth straight year, a Boise State research team has been accepted into NASA’s competitive Microgravity University program.

Also known as the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program, Microgravity University 2012 challenges undergraduate students to design, fabricate, fly and evaluate a reduced gravity experiment that ultimately contributes to NASA’s mission to advance human exploration, use and development of space. Boise State joins 13 other student teams, including those from MIT, Yale and Purdue.

The students will conduct their experiment June 8-16 during Flight Week at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The experience during Flight Week includes hands-on experimental research and interaction with some of the world’s top technical minds at NASA. The students also will experience weightlessness when they test their experiment 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 someone would feel walking on the moon and floating in space.

With nearly all new members, Boise State’s team will build upon last year’s study that looked at cellular mechanisms associated with bone density loss suffered by astronauts who endure long periods of weightlessness. That study found a direct correlation between changes in gravity and changes in calcium concentrations in a certain type of bone cells. This year’s team will validate and quantify those results by increasing the sample size from five to 96. They are designing and building a new apparatus with a lens and charge-coupled device-based system that will monitor the entire sample set simultaneously, rather than one by one. This year’s team also will expand the research by including an additional type of bone cells in their experiment.

“Our students continue to shine for Boise State as this program helps the university evolve as a metropolitan research university of distinction,” said Barbara Morgan, distinguished educator in residence and former NASA astronaut. “If we can understand what is happening in microgravity to cause bone loss, maybe we can help people all over the world. These are undergraduates doing graduate-level research.”

The research team represents several departments in the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering, and for the first time includes a student pursuing a degree in secondary education. The team will visit local school districts to engage K-12 students in a series of lessons on life sciences, engineering and the excitement of getting to experience weightlessness.

“This project is truly interdisciplinary and addresses a real world problem. It’s a biology project, it’s an education project and it’s an engineering project. No one person can do this project without the help of other team members,” said David Connolly, a junior mechanical engineering major who is leading the team. “Last year, we couldn’t do as much as we had hoped. So this year we decided to expand the experiment and validate what we saw was really happening. It’s very exciting.”

Working with faculty advisers Elisa Barney Smith, Alark Joshi, Julia Oxford, Robert Hay, Sara Haight and Morgan along with research assistant Benjamin Davis, the team will work through the winter and spring to design, build and test their experiment in preparation for Flight Week in June. The students also will be writing grant proposals to help with equipment and travel costs.

Participating students include: Jason Archer, Matthew Dolan, and Marie Tharp (electrical & computer engineering); Eugene Castro and David Connolly (mechanical engineering); Lindsey Catlin (biology); Reilly Clark (applied mathematics/biology); and Audra Phelps (biology/secondary education).

For more information, visit

and NASA’s Microgravity University at