Houston, we don’t have a problem.
In fact, if Michael Browne and Benjamin Freedman have anything to do with it, we may have a solution. Or, at the very least, a better understanding of the way toxic chemicals affect human cells in microgravity and hypergravity.
Browne and Freedman, students in the University of Maine’s Chemical and Biological Engineering Department, participated in NASA’s Microgravity University at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Their Dirigo Flyers team included adviser Michael Mason, a UMaine chemical and biological engineering professor, along with students and faculty from the University of Southern Maine. Mason provides specially engineered gold and silver nanoparticles for use in John Wise’s USM toxicology lab, making the student-driven research a natural collaboration.
Microgravity University (MGU) allows undergraduate students — about 30 teams over three sessions — to conduct research aboard the Weightless Wonder, a modified McDonnell Douglas DC-9 aircraft that flies a series of parabolic maneuvers to produce periods of micro- and hypergravity.
“Every kid dreams of being an astronaut. It’s an experience most people don’t get to have in their lifetime,” says Browne, a junior from Winslow, Maine.
Their experiments focused on the uptake of known toxins in human lung cells during periods of enhanced and reduced gravity. Astronauts experience both conditions for extended periods, and with NASA’s push to colonize on the moon by 2024, the health implications will be of even greater interest.
The Dirigo Flyers’ research was funded in part by donations from the Maine Space Grant Consortium, the University of Maine and UMaine alumnus Doug Hall, who runs the Eureka! Ranch innovation think tank in Ohio.
The Dirigo Flyers hypothesized that the gravity conditions experienced in space flight would cause cells and DNA chromosomes to become more susceptible to damage. The team was the first in MGU’s history to experiment using live cells, which required special precautions onboard and extensive preparation on the ground. Because of their unique research, they also were allowed access to cutting-edge biochemistry laboratories at Johnson Space Center
“Hands-on experiences always serve to illustrate to students the link between classroom work and real-world application,” he says. “Often it is a positive research experience which helps promising students make the decision to go on to graduate school.”
For Browne and Freedman, a senior from Caribou, Maine, MGU cemented their decision to continue down the research path. They still have a way to go on their NASA research, but their early findings look promising. They also have started doing educational outreach on campus and in area high schools.
“It was a unique experience, meeting all these other talented students from big universities and being on the same playing field as them,” Browne says. “Even though it’s the small state of Maine, we still have a great program at UMaine, and there are opportunities out there if you take them. The research we’re doing at Orono is at the same level as other, larger universities, or better.”
Image Description: Michael Browne and Benjamin Freedman