As NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour travels through space on its final mission, two freshman students are hard at work in the laboratory, conducting control research as participants in a microgravity experiment on board the shuttle.
Heidi Mederos (class of 2013) and Richard Sung (class of 2014), biology majors at NSU, are participating in an experiment investigating the role of microgravity on the growth and formation of tin crystals in space. Mederos and Sung are freshmen in NSU’s Undergraduate Honors Program and the Dual Admission Program for dental medicine. They are working under the supervision of Dimitri Giarikos, Ph.D., associate professor at NSU and the research coordinator for the Endeavour experiment.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for the students,” Giarikos said. “It’s exciting just knowing that you have an experiment on board the space shuttle. How many people can say that?”
Scientists believe that crystals will grow larger and more perfectly in space than on Earth, where their shapes and sizes are subject to gravitational pulls. Using a scanning electron microscope, the space-grown crystals will be examined and compared with the growth patterns of crystals grown on Earth.
Mederos and Sung are conducting about 15 to 30 control experiments using varying centrifugal forces, temperatures, and chemical concentrations.
“We will perform different control experiments and compare the results,” Giarikos said. “In the lab, we will try to grow crystals using different gravitational pulls using a centrifuge. We will also look at temperature dependency on crystal growth. Do the crystals grow differently at lower and higher temperatures? Then, we will compare these crystals with those formed in space. The hypothesis is that the crystals will grow more ‘perfectly’ in space under microgravity than they are going to grow in the laboratory.”
Mederos said the research project is giving her the chance to apply what she has learned in the classroom to a “real-case scenario.”
“The idea of conducting an experiment in space fascinates me,” Mederos said. “Although the reaction under study is rather simple, [it] offers insight into the role gravity plays. That can help us better understand other processes.”
Giarikos and the students are working with Barry Perlman, M.S., associate lecturer at NSU and the principal investigator in the Endeavour experiment. The project director is Eric S. Ackerman, Ph.D., of the Emil Buehler Research Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics and of NSU’s Graduate School of Computer and Information Sciences.
This is the fourth time Perlman’s experiment has been flown into space, Perlman said.
“The last time it flew was on Columbia’s tragic last mission,” Perlman said, referring to the 2003 space shuttle disaster. “It is a thrill to be able to fly that experiment in the form that was on [Columbia] and to obtain the results we could not obtain from that mission. It essentially completes part of what was attempted on that mission.”
Students have been involved in each of Perlman’s space experiments.
“We need to involve and create the next generation of explorers in order to continue and advance the progress we have made in space,” Perlman said. “It is important to understand how materials form in space, where there is essentially zero gravity, so that we can use that environment in the future to produce things that cannot be made on Earth.”
Microgravity research is important for the potential gain in scientific and technological information, particularly in the biomedical and drug-development fields.
“We can get brand new scientific results,” Giarikos said. “We don’t really know the full effects yet, and that is what’s exciting. There is a new frontier using microgravity.”
Mederos and Sung are excited to be part of the research and a small part of history.
“This is a great opportunity for me to learn and get involved in professional research,” Sung said. “I believe this project will be helpful to me in the future.”
“This will be the last journey of the Endeavour shuttle, and knowing that I will participate in one of its experiments is very rewarding,” Mederos said.
“The college is proud of student and faculty involvement in this project,” said Don Rosenblum, Ph.D., dean of the Farquhar Honors College. “It is a unique opportunity for our Honors Program students, as they are gaining invaluable research experience. Through their involvement, the college faculty members are both contributing to the field and informing their classroom instruction.”
The research project will continue for several months.