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Space germs: University of Idaho students’ research on bacteria being tested by International Space Station

Members of the University of Idaho student research team was one of five groups selected NASA’s Student Payload Opportunity With Citizen Science (SPOCS) program to build an experiment to send aboard the International Space Station.  (Greg Mason / The Spokesman-Review)
Members of the University of Idaho student research team was one of five groups selected NASA’s Student Payload Opportunity With Citizen Science (SPOCS) program to build an experiment to send aboard the International Space Station. (Greg Mason / The Spokesman-Review)

For Hannah Johnson, the leadup to the SpaceX launch felt akin to some of the stress depicted in a few space disaster movies from the ‘90s.

There was roughly 56 hours to the launch of SpaceX’s CRS-24 mission last month when Johnson and her fellow University of Idaho chemical engineers learned the research container they hoped to send to the International Space Station had sprung a leak. Worse, a looming deadline to reload the container meant they had about a day to fix it.

The container was developed over more than a year to test how microgravity affects certain polymer coatings, ones known to resist bacteria adhesion, on an aluminum alloy used with several high-contact areas aboard the space station.

The goal is to possibly reduce bacterial transmission among astronauts in contact with high-use surfaces, such as door handles and railings. The project was one of two funded through NASA’s Student Payload Opportunity with Citizen Science (SPOCS) program that were set to go to the International Space Station during the SpaceX launch Dec. 21.

Before that, though, the UI team had to fix the leak.

Getting creative

Johnson and seven other UI chemical engineering students spearheaded the research, which started as a fall 2020 senior capstone project assigned by associate professor Matthew Bernards.

Bernards, the director of the NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium, said chemical engineering capstone projects typically focus on industry and research needs or opportunities like national or international competitions.

This particular project aligned with an email Bernards received in early fall 2020 about the SPOCS program. NASA’s call also paired well with research Bernards said the chemical engineering department has done over the last 14 years into polymers for biomedical applications, such as reducing bacterial adhesion during medical procedures.

“It was kind of the perfect marriage of the perfect research interests, project opportunity and timing for my class,” he said.

The UI team consisted of Johnson, Adriana Bryant, Travis Lindsay, Roslyn McCormack, Niko Hansen and Kael Stelck, as well as current students Kaitlyn Harvey and Ashley Keeley, who were hired after the original six graduated to assist with the project’s final stages.

“I’ve always been really interested in (space),” said Johnson, the project’s team lead. “Knowing that I can actually contribute and have the knowledge and the ability to actually work on things was just something I wanted to take a shot for.”

Bernards said students first submitted a proposal for SPOCS funding consideration in October 2020. Once selected as a finalist, the team gave a presentation that December to NASA representatives, as well as mission managers with Nanoracks and space education company DreamUp.

The teams selected for funding were announced Dec. 14, 2020.

Using the previous UI research, the student team focused their project initially on three polymers under consideration for space travel.

They narrowed those down to two to head to space, along with uncoated aluminum alloy as a control group, thanks to the help of some local elementary school students.

The “Citizen Science” element of the SPOCS program requires the involvement of K-12 students as citizen scientists for the experiment. Accordingly, the UI student team was assisted by third- to fifth-grade students at J. Russell Elementary School in Moscow to determine which polymer coatings were the best at resisting bacterial adhesion.

Giving the students experiment kits with cotton swabs, two random polymers, a control surface and a nutrient broth to foster bacteria growth, the UI team asked the kids to swab different surfaces and apply that to the samples. Around 90 of 200 data sets were returned after the 30-day trial.

“Some of them probably spit in the petri dishes,” Johnson said. “They had all sorts of ideas on how to get the bacteria in there.”

‘Pretty cool to see’

UI students had to get creative themselves with designing the actual research container.

Bernards said the team was limited to a 10-by-10-by-15-centimeter container that could weigh no more than 1.5 kilograms, otherwise less than approximately 3.4 pounds. NASA similarly set limits on the amount of electricity, noise and vibrations allowable for the chemistry to work, while the project also needed as little involvement as possible from astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Developing a container that astronauts could essentially just plug in was tough – particularly since the team was limited to chemical engineering majors due to the nature of the capstone project, Johnson said.

“It would’ve been nice to have a computer engineer on our team because I had to learn how to program from scratch ,” she said, “and just things that took us a lot longer because we had to learn the skill and then apply it.”

Team members traveled down to Kennedy Space Center to watch the Dec. 21 SpaceX launch. There, Johnson said the team also saw some “behind-the-scenes” happenings , including the rocket designed for NASA’s developing Artemis 1 lunar orbital mission.

The UI team’s research container was undergoing pre-launch testing when they discovered a leak in one of the containment seals, Johnson said.

“At that moment, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, did we just waste a year of our lives planning this project?’” she said. “That was probably one of the most stressful times of our lives, but it was a good challenge because … my teammates and I were able to overcome that and work really well under pressure and listen to each other and work as a team. It was definitely not fun, but it was very rewarding.”

The team sorted it out, and thanks to a break in the weather, the mission was able to launch as scheduled.

After arriving successfully, the UI research was installed by Kayla Barron, the Richland astronaut currently aboard the International Space Station.

Barron said Wednesday the experiment caught her eye as she was loading it into an airlock. It’s one of many experiments from universities across the world that have found their way to space.

“(It) had a University of Idaho sticker on it, and my sister is actually a University of Idaho grad, Stephanie,” Barron said. “So I had kind of this, you know, ‘Go Vandals!’ thought in my head as I was putting it in. It was pretty cool to see.”

The experiment will remain undisturbed for 30 days after arrival before it is eventually returned to the university for final evaluations and report.

“Being able to accomplish that,” Johnson said, “and actually meet with people at NASA and to have them communicate with me and let me know I was doing a good job and that I am capable of doing these amazing things, it really just gives you the confidence in yourself to be able to take that next step and apply for a position that you may not have been able to apply for before.”

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