Undergraduate team places as finalists in NASA competition

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Spocs Team 450
The Notre Dame students on the “Vulcans” team (left to right):
Kathleen Ryan, Andrea Lebron Figueroa, and Grace Ryan

A team of University of Notre Dame undergraduate students imagined an experiment that would take biological research to new heights, by proposing a research project that NASA could send into space.

Their 55-page proposal led them to the finalist round of the Student Payload Opportunity with Citizen Science (SPOCS) competition, a NASA program created to celebrate 20 years of continuous human presence on the International Space Station (ISS). SPOCS invited college, university, and graduate students from across the country to submit proposals for sustainability or bacteria resistance research in a microgravity environment.

From a group of ten finalist teams, NASA selected the top five experiments to run on the ISS in winter 2021-2022. While the Notre Dame students did not receive the prize of $20,000 in funding to send their experiment beyond Earth’s atmosphere, their placement as finalists still represents a momentous accomplishment.

Kathleen Ryan, a senior biology major from Arlington Heights, Illinois, had participated in other NASA programs before. When she saw a tweet about SPOCS while scrolling through social media last August, she knew she wanted to start a team. She called up Andrea Lebron Figueroa, a fellow senior biology major from San Juan, Puerto Rico, her sister, Grace Ryan, and Arizona State University student Ryan O’Hara to join the group. Lebron Figueroa connected the team with their advisor, Joshua Shrout, in whose sociomicrobiology lab she had worked since sophomore year.

Shrout, a civil and environmental engineering and earth sciences associate professor, who is concurrent in the Department of Biological Sciences, explained, “This was all the students’ idea. I didn’t come to them, [Ryan] and [Lebron Figueroa] came to me. The proposal was written entirely by the student team from scratch.”

The team nicknamed themselves the “Vulcans” and picked bacteria resistance from the two topics NASA proposed, because bacterial behavior comprises one of the main areas of interest in the Shrout lab, and Ryan and Lebron share a passion for biology. Specifically, the students decided to study the growth, mutations, ability to move, and nutrient availability of the Pseudomonas aeruginosa and another relevant bacterium in the microgravity environment of space, in comparison to these microorganisms’ behavior on Earth.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa can cause respiratory infections and urinary tract infections and can worsen the effects of cystic fibrosis and burns. While the bacterium is common within an average household here on Earth, scientists have also detected it on the ISS.

The team explained that investigating how bacteria behaves in space is a pressing concern, especially considering NASA’s plans for a human presence on the moon and a manned mission to Mars. Since data shows that bacterial resistance to antibiotics increases and the human immune response simultaneously decreases in a microgravity environment, the students hoped their proposed experiment could develop a better understanding of these changes. This knowledge could eventually lead to more effective treatments for diseases in space, preserving astronaut health in an environment with limited medical access.

“Astrobiology has been explored but it’s very underexplored,” Lebron Figueroa said. “There were a lot of questions that we couldn’t answer and that other people couldn’t answer for us. So there were a lot of things that we had to figure out on our own.”

In addition to this lack of information, another one of the challenges the team faced was fitting their entire experiment into a 10 x 10 x 15 cm NanoLab enclosure. The base, for comparison, would only be about the size of a 4 x 6 inch printed photo. They had to contact numerous manufacturers to see if they could reproduce the proposed space-rated experimental device, which would house the bacteria and a growth medium and automatically inject a preservative at certain times. Those companies were not always very forthcoming about their capabilities or price.

The group also had to channel their creativity for the citizen science portion of the project. NASA required that SPOCS teams not only educated K-12 students about space science but also made them an integral part of their experimental design or data analysis.

“It was quite the challenge because you have to come up with things that they can do at an age-appropriate level but [that] still contribute to your findings…of [the] actual experimental proposal,” Grace Ryan, a sophomore physics and business analytics major primarily responsible for this portion of the project, said.

The group reached out to schools in Indiana, Illinois, and Puerto Rico and consulted with the Ryan sisters’ mother, an elementary school and vice-principal. They also planned a broader media campaign, including news outureach, a podcast, social media channels, educational science demonstrations, research symposium presentations, and the publication of a paper in a scientific journal.

As biology is not her main area of study at Notre Dame, Grace Ryan particularly enjoyed learning more about the subject and extending this knowledge to others. “It could be shared with the world and all of these students; we could get so many kids excited about the future of space exploration,” she explained.

As the students shared the joy of space science with others, they also learned about valuable resources on Notre Dame’s campus and built their own skill sets. Numerous professors helped the team edit their proposal, as they prepared for their own futures in research.

“It was a really big professional development experience,” Kathleen Ryan explained. “A lot of the skills that we developed were how to be a science professional or an engineering professional…and proposal writing skills. I feel that that’s huge because writing a proposal is a huge undertaking and there’s a lot of work that goes into it.”

Her younger sister cited the team-building, communication, and leadership abilities they gained, adding, “I had no idea how much goes into something like this, but I now I completely understand how it’s so worth it in the end, regardless of placement or funding.”

“We put a lot of time and effort into this and it was very rewarding,” Lebron Figueroa agreed.

Furthermore, the students’ placement as finalists shows that they could channel the skills they developed into professional-level science. Especially during a semester shadowed by the ongoing pandemic and on-campus coronavirus restrictions, SPOCS gave the team a goal and provided a sense of camaraderie in a time of social distancing.

“It was an amazing feeling to see that our hard work really paid off and that we wrote something that NASA approved of,…something that NASA saw potential to send to space and be a great, viable experiment,” Kathleen Ryan explained. “That was incredible.”