UNC Pembroke students fly at zero gravity with NASA

08/10/2014 12:00 AM

08/10/2014 4:39 PM

UNC Pembroke students conducted experiments high in the sky and at zero gravity through NASA’s Minority University Research Education Program this July. Dedicated research and preparation granted the students two weightless flights with astronauts – an experience that can help launch their science and technology careers.

“It’s amazing to work with NASA. It really opened my mind that maybe one day I could be doing research like this in the future,” said biology major Molly Musselwhite, who graduated from UNCP in May.

The team, named the Weightless Lumbees, united four undergraduates from Robeson County. Their name reflects their project’s work as well as the county’s Lumbee Indian heritage.

Team leader Musselwhite channeled her curiosity about human physiology into the team’s research over the last three years. Tiffany Scott assisted Musselwhite on the project while also working toward a chemistry degree. When they participated last year, the Lumbees were the program’s only all-female team.

Team member Trae Griffin is a member of the U.S. Marine Corp Reserves while he pursues a biology degree. Georgianna Revels, a math education major, identifies as a nontraditional student. She is a mother of two, a community college transfer and a Lumbee. Her first plane flight ever began when she boarded the NASA aircraft with her team.

The Weightless Lumbees joined 12 teams from around the country this July at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Their two flights in NASA’s “Weightless Wonder” C9 aircraft carried students in a series of climbs and dives that created the sensation of alternating zero gravity and hypergravity.

“I couldn’t lift myself off the floor. It’s almost like you can feel your organs lift before your body,” said Musselwhite. “It’s not comparable to a roller coaster. It’s just weightless. It’s indescribable.”

Gaining acceptance into the program isn’t easy. Students submitted a formal 54-page research proposal to NASA that outlined a novel experiment and a plan to meet the complex technical and safety requirements required for work at zero gravity. The team designed a project independent from any professor’s research at UNCP, a rare opportunity for undergraduates.

“The students have taken charge and they have been very responsible,” said Rachel Smith, a biochemist at UNCP and faculty adviser to the team. UNCP physicist Tim Ritter advised the team until June, when he took a teaching appointment at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Zero-gravity science

The team settled on two experiments to test the effects of gravity on biochemical reactions.

Students wondered if astronauts could exercise as efficiently in zero gravity. Their experiment simulated the Cori cycle, a process that delivers energy molecules to muscles and creates the cramping sensation felt during intense workouts. The second experiment tested how gravity affects the body’s immune response by measuring how quickly antibodies bind to pathogens in a solution.

The team predicted zero gravity would slow down how fluids with different densities mixed. When gravity pulls on a dense fluid like water, it should sink through a less dense medium like oil. But, density goes away at zero gravity. Without gravity, fluids may not sink or mix – preventing fluid molecules from bumping into each other as often. This could mean slower reactions and slow delivery of energy to muscles or binding of antibodies to pathogens.

Over months of preparation and countless tests, students transformed their project ideas into testable experiments able to withstand the limits of zero gravity and hypergravity.

“Many things are different in microgravity that you wouldn’t expect,” said Musselwhite.

A large, sealed container held all equipment as floating objects in the plane’s cabin to prevent endangering passengers. The team could reach into the container through gloves attached to it. Another challenge was figuring out how to conduct an experiment within the 30-second weightless peak in the flight’s roller coaster path.

During last year’s experiments, students measured slower chemical reactions at reduced gravity, but they did not bring supplies to measure mixing directly. This year the team expanded the experiment by adding colorful dyes to illuminate the extent that fluids mixed.

Wearing NASA flight suits and equipped with their experimental apparatus, the team boarded the plane for a two-hour flight with 15 waves of enhanced and reduced gravity.

As they approached each weightless peak, students pushed syringe plungers to deliver chemical solutions into the reaction chamber. At zero gravity, the colored solution remained at the bottom and did not mix at all. But, in control tests back at the lab, students observed a stream of color break the surface, push down into the chamber and shoot back up – just like water does when a hose fills a bucket.

“Our experiment worked,” said Musselwhite. “We really worked very hard for months. It’s really exhilarating and gives you a sense of pride to know that your hard work paid off.”

Program benefits

Teamwork proved essential to the project’s success.

“We all are very different, but that is OK because we each bring something different to the table to make it work,” said Scott.

Revels and Griffin joined the team this year to conduct a scientific outreach project to complement the experiment. During the spring Griffin and Revels exhibited items and videos about the program at six schools in Robeson County and at N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Astronomy Day in Raleigh. Through outreach and education, they hope to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.

During July’s NASA flight, Griffin and Revels filmed themselves popping a water balloon at zero gravity. They documented a blob of water floating next to balloon fragments until gravity shifted and both came crashing to the chamber floor. They are compiling footage into an educational film to demonstrate the principles of gravity behind the experiment.

This month, the Weightless Lumbees will synthesize their results and prepare a final report for NASA. With a new perspective on solid ground, the team reflected on the profound impact of their shared experience.

Revels believes the program has expanded her math teaching skills.

“After this experience I understand the fundamentals of math and how often it is used,” she said. Revels plans to draw upon her experience to demonstrate to her students the everyday applications of math, which she says are unappreciated.

After presenting team research to an audience that included NASA scientists, Musselwhite claims her fear of public speaking has subsided. Scott takes away a new understanding of teamwork and shared responsibility.

Working with NASA and experiencing it as an American Indian female was an accomplishment in itself for Revels. The experience transformed what she believed was possible for herself and for her students.

“There is more to life. They can accomplish things with some really phenomenal people.”

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