Microgravity Group selected to participate in NASA program

Rebecca Savransky, Assistant Campus Editor

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The Northwestern University Microgravity Group was selected to participate in a weeklong NASA program to test how a specific protein responds in microgravity environments.

The NASA Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program gives select students the opportunity to use the organization’s Vomit Comet, a device created to simulate the experience of space travel with a zero-gravity atmosphere. NU’s team will participate in April and look into how the actin protein responds, which will give insight into the reasons bone strength deteriorates in zero-gravity environments.

This year, NU’s team was one of 18 selected out of more than 100 submissions, said Weinberg senior Andrew Kozminski, the team’s leader. Kozminski said the application process required a significant amount of time, which included thinking of a feasible research topic, writing a lengthy proposal and addressing any concerns from NASA.

“They look at the proposal, and they tell you whether or not it’s a good idea,” Kozminski said. “After that, just getting your project accepted is like nothing compared to the amount of analysis that has to go into what you’re doing after that.”

The group will have several opportunities to test its experiment when they visit the NASA Center in Houston from April 4-12. NASA has provided a series of guidelines regarding the trials. These include in-depth tests to ensure items put on the plane are safe and the need for the experiment results to be produced in 20 seconds or less.

“That was a big hurdle in trying to figure out what we particularly wanted to do as a test,” Kozminski said.

During the week, the team will be given tours of parts of the NASA Center and given basic training sessions about how to operate in the Vomit Comet.

This is not the first time NU has sent a team to participate in the program. A group of students applied and received acceptance to the program in 2010 as well. Kozminski said he was not surprised this year’s proposal was selected.

“I spent my entire summer researching this project and building the proposal,” Kozminski said. “The idea that we are looking into is so insanely important to NASA that it would be ridiculous for them to not accept.”

Biology Prof. John Mordacq, the team’s mentor, said besides reading their proposal and answering a few questions, the initiative was completely student-run.

“They’re really doing everything. They designed the experiment. They’re building the kit,” Mordacq said. “I think faculty in all of this have a very minimal role. It’s really student-driven, and I think that is very exciting.”

Kozminski said he hopes the experiment results will be published. However, he is unsure if a more widely known scientific journal will accept it.

“It would be great to publish them in any cell biology paper,” he said. “I imagine we might easily get into a pretty low-rated journal simply because we’re not professors, but it is a cool idea and a cool experiment.”

Team member Pakasutha Dhiantravan said after all of the time she and the group devoted to the project, she’s looking forward to the experience and excited about the chance to use the Vomit Comet.

“I’ve always been really interested by what NASA does,” the McCormick sophomore, said. “I’ve always wanted to do something associated with NASA, and this was my opportunity.”

Email: rebeccasavransky2015@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @beccasavransky