NASA Space Radiation School is Totally Radical

A veritable physics and biology mashup exposes students to a broad spectrum of space radiation research and expertise.

NASA Press ReleaseHOUSTON, TX, September 19, 2014 /24-7PressRelease/ — For many students, the idea of summer school is anything but inspiring. Students of the 2014 NASA Space Radiation Summer School (NSRSS) might disagree. The students, experts in their respective fields of study, were recently immersed in three weeks of intense education, collaboration and perhaps most importantly, inspiration.

Education

The school, a veritable physics and biology mashup, exposes students to a broad spectrum of space radiation research and expertise. Indeed, many students see the summer school as an opportunity to better themselves as scientists and bridge biology and physics.

“These students–an outright brain trust–learn nitty-gritty space radiation physics and biology,” said John Norbury, who served as director of this year’s school. “The school sensitizes them to the various factors of space radiation, which is one of the most critical aspects of getting to Mars.”

According to Peter Guida, NASA liaison biologist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) where the school is held, the purpose of the school is to teach the students how to think critically about global issues and problems related to radiation, how to design experiments and how to execute them.

“We want to get students on a pathway to make sure there are no gaps in space radiation science research,” said Guida.

According to Guida, the summer school provides students with an experience that they could not receive anywherein the world. During their time at the summer school, students hear lectures from 30 to 33 distinguished experts in the field who address topics not taught in the average classroom. They also participate in cell-based experiments that teach them to detect DNA damage, detect changes in cell death and toxicity, and measure cell replication. Additionally, they learn about BNL’s particle accelerators, the radiation beam, and how to write a beam time proposal, which is key to obtaining time at BNL’s NASA Space Radiation Laboratory where researchers conduct experiments. The students — largely students with advanced degrees — are selected through a highly competitive application process.

The school offers some intangible things as well, namely collaboration and inspiration.

Collaboration

The NSRSS strives to get biologists and physicists on the same wavelength, all learning from one another and forging relationships with scientists in fields they normally would have not had an opportunity to meet otherwise.

“I am a biologist and I know which challenges we have, but to get a better understanding of the challenges the physicists face in this field is something that has changed and improved the way I perceive the whole field,” said Pil Fredericia, NSRSS student and doctoral student at the Technical University of Denmark. “I think that is the most valuable lesson I have received from this whole experience.”

Fellow student Wouter de Wet agrees.

“The largest impact for me both personally and professionally was the relationships I formed with the other students,” says de Wet. “I now have colleagues and friends in all parts of the space radiation research field with whom I am certain I will collaborate in the future. If it had not been for this experience, I would probably never have met any of them.”

Inspiration

Hand in hand with the school’s objective of helping students understand why space radiation is important is the goal of inspiring them.

“We need young experts in the field with new insights,” said Norbury who adds that their measure of success is how much they have inspired students.

To date, more than 30 percent of NSRSS students have returned to BNL as researchers and, based on student feedback, this year’s school was a resounding success.

“I was really taken aback by the number of such highly acknowledged researchers in the field that took their time to come and lecture,” said Fredericia. “To be in an environment with such skilled people with so much knowledge was really inspiring to me. It made me look at my own research from another perspective. It made me think about other implications of my research.”

NASA Pathway Scholar and doctoral candidate Samrawit Yeshitla noted that the session enhanced confidence in her current work, adding, “NASA scientists gave us a lifetime of knowledge and left us to think about how we can help NASA prepare for long duration missions.”

“I do believe this program is key to one day meeting our goal of putting a person on the surface of Mars,” agreed de Wet. “It brings together researchers from all areas of the field and helps you realize that you are a part of a much larger team than your own research group–all trying to reach the same goal.”

Maybe the idea of an inspiring summer school isn’t such a radical idea after all.

Everything in Moderation: Micro-8 to Study Regulating Pathogens in Space

Scientists want to address controlling outbreaks of Candida albicans, an opportunistic yeast pathogen, with the next round of cellular growth experiments on the International Space Station — Micro-8.

NASA Press ReleaseHOUSTON, TX, September 19, 2014 /24-7PressRelease/ — Our bodies are breeding grounds for microbes — don’t worry, it’s a good thing! As scientists have been telling us for years, not all microbes are bad. Many active enzymes and bacteria are merely benign, and, in moderation, are beneficial to humans as an important part of our digestive system or can help regulate our immune system.

Candida albicans, an opportunistic yeast pathogen and model organism for research, is common and usually doesn’t damage our healthy personal ecosystem. However, when our immune system is stressed on Earth or in space, such as during long-duration space travel, C. albicans can grow out of control and potentially cause infections. Scientists want to address controlling these outbreaks with the next round of cellular growth experiments on the International Space Station — Micro-8.

Results from a recent set of tests on the station, called Micro-6, encouraged further study into the impact of spaceflight on the cellular behavior of these microbes. During the investigation, scientists discovered C. albicans grew to a more elongated form, grew into an altered structure when forming a colony and, perhaps most importantly, showed an increased resistance to the antimicrobial agent Amphotericin B. The combination of these factors could result in an increase of the infectious nature of this opportunistic pathogen.

This is why scientists will continue to study C. albicans in Micro-8, scheduled for delivery on the fourth commercial cargo resupply flight of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, targeted to launch Sept. 20, 2014. The investigation on the orbiting laboratory will allow scientists to better understand the growth and development of these microbes, which, in turn, can help develop treatment for infections both in space and on Earth.

“We already understand a great deal about this particular yeast,” said Sheila Nielsen, Ph.D., principal investigator for the Micro-6 and Micro-8 missions at Montana State University in Bozeman. “Previous studies have given us a broad set of benchmarks, including the sequence of the entire genome, which makes Candida albicans a great subject for study in microgravity because we have extensive information to compare it to.”

Designed to examine how spaceflight affects potentially infectious organisms, the Micro-8 investigation will provide new insights into better management and treatment of C. albicans infections when they occur on Earth as well as in space, and may offer ways to combat other microbial pathogens. By comparing the cells grown in microgravity to cells grown in gravity, the research team will examine several parameters, including the susceptibility of the yeast to antimicrobial agents.

Micro-8 will directly build on the Micro-6 study. It also will include a second antifungal agent to better understand the yeast response to different antimicrobial agents.

One of the most important evolutions of the Micro-8 investigation is the introduction of human monocytes — or blood cells — as a host. Astronauts on the orbiting laboratory will test the yeast growth on monocytes in an enclosed and controlled facility called the Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus (CGBA). The CGBA is an incubator capable of controlling the temperature between 46 and 98 degrees F.

“We have already demonstrated that microgravity affects cell shape and behavior,” said Nielsen. “A more complete understanding of the yeast adaptation response to extreme environments, such as microgravity, and the risks associated with potential infection is vital for long-term crew health and safety. With that knowledge, we can develop treatments to keep our astronauts and our Earth population healthier.”

Micro-8 is funded and managed through NASA Space Biology at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. The payload developer is BioServe Space Technologies in Boulder, Colorado. Space Biology is funded by the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division within the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

So, while we don’t want to eliminate all of the bacteria and yeast microbes from our system, scientists are using the orbiting laboratory to discover ways to keep them in check on Earth and in space.

By Bill Hubscher
International Space Station Program Science Office
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

The Top 100 Digital, Marketing, Comms and PR Blogs of 2014

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