From University of Maryland CMNS: Women in STEM- “Microbiology Experiment from All-female Student Team Heads to Space This Weekend”

U Maryland bloc

From University of Maryland CMNS

July 19, 2019
Writer: Irene Ying

Media Relations Contact:
Kimbra Cutlip

University of Maryland
College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences
2300 Symons Hall
College Park, Md. 20742

Heading to the International Space Station is an experiment investigating bacteria growth in microgravity developed by this all-female research team of Terp biological sciences majors. Left to right: Pali Keppetipola, Michelle Fang, Niki Gooya, Debbie Adam, Apurva Raghu. Photo credit: Akash Raghu

This summer, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) will carry out an experiment, designed by five University of Maryland rising sophomores, which will test bacteria’s ability to grow on different surfaces in microgravity. The rocket that will carry the experiment to the ISS is scheduled to launch Sunday, July 21, 2019 at 7:35 p.m. EST.

The experiment is part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), which gives students the chance to design and propose real experiments on the ISS. The students’ experiment was selected from numerous proposals by Terps in Space, UMD’s SSEP community, which chooses one team every year to send an experiment to the ISS.

The five students—Debbie Adam, Michelle Fang, Niki Gooya, Swarnapali “Pali” Keppetipola and Apurva Raghu—are all biological sciences majors and members of the Integrated Life Sciences program in the Honors College. Each of them took pride in being a member of an all-female research team.

“I’m extremely proud of our team because the participation of women in science is not as prominent as it should be,” Adam said. “The fact that we have made it this far is really important to me.”

Gooya was the first of the group to enter the space race.

“I participated in SSEP in eighth grade, although my team’s project did not get sent to space,” said Gooya, who attended Burleigh Manor Middle School in Ellicott City, Maryland. “When I found that Maryland participated in the program, I jumped on it and got my friends to join me.”

The students designed an experiment to study slimy layers of bacteria called biofilms. Biofilms stick to each other and to virtually any surface more strongly than a single bacterium can. They are difficult to get rid of and can lead to human illness. Previous research has also shown that biofilms grow more readily in microgravity, making them an important issue to address on the ISS.

The students’ experiment will examine how well biofilms can adhere to both smooth and porous aluminum surfaces in microgravity. Smooth aluminum is solid, whereas porous aluminum has small holes, or pores, throughout its structure. Previous research has shown that bacteria do not stick well to porous aluminum on Earth.

“A lot of equipment on the ISS is made from aluminum, because it’s economical and easy to work with,” Keppetipola said. “For instance, many tubes used in air filters on the ISS are made of aluminum. If biofilms form in the tubing, bacteria could spread into the ISS’ living spaces and make astronauts sick.”

To design their experiment, the students conducted preliminary research with help from Qiao Ding, a graduate student in the laboratory of Rohan Tikekar, assistant professor of nutrition and food science at UMD. The students also acknowledged support from Birthe Kjellerup, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at UMD; Timothy Foecke, a scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology; and their team mentor, Natalia Stepanova, director of Terps in Space.

“Qiao dedicated so much time to helping us with our project that we consider him an honorary member of our group,” Fang said. “He and so many others took us under their wings and gave us opportunities. I don’t think we could have gotten here without them.”

To test whether bacteria can stick to different aluminum surfaces in microgravity, the students will prepare a tube containing dormant E. coli bacteria and two pieces of aluminum—one porous and one smooth. On the ISS, astronauts will add nutrient solution to the bacteria, triggering their activation and growth. After three days, the astronauts will add a preservative to the bacteria-nutrient mixture to kill the bacteria and freeze the cells in place. At the same time, the students will conduct an identical experiment on Earth for comparison.

The idea of conducting an experiment in parallel with astronauts on the ISS is especially exciting to Raghu. “Ever since I was little, I wanted to be an astrophysicist, although I’m pre-med now,” Raghu said. “This way, if I can’t go to space, I can at least see my tube go to space.”

After the ISS experiment returns to Earth, students will analyze the thickness, area, volume and other physical properties of the biofilms grown on the aluminum surfaces. Their primary goal is to determine which type of aluminum surface better resisted biofilm growth in microgravity. Additionally, they will assess whether biofilms had a higher density, growth rate and bacterial cell count in space than on Earth.

If porous aluminum is indeed resistant to biofilm growth in microgravity, the students suggest that other researchers should study how to incorporate more porous materials on the ISS. This could be especially important in places such as pipes and storage areas, which are most prone to biofilm growth.

Ultimately, the students would like to submit their results for publication.

See the full article here .


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The thirst for new knowledge is a fundamental and defining characteristic of humankind. It is also at the heart of scientific endeavor and discovery. As we seek to understand our world, across a host of complexly interconnected phenomena and over scales of time and distance that were virtually inaccessible to us a generation ago, our discoveries shape that world. At the forefront of many of these discoveries is the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS).

CMNS is home to 12 major research institutes and centers and to 10 academic departments: astronomy, atmospheric and oceanic science, biology, cell biology and molecular genetics, chemistry and biochemistry, computer science, entomology, geology, mathematics, and physics.

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Our faculty are at the cutting edge over the full range of these disciplines. Our physicists fill in major gaps in our fundamental understanding of matter, participating in the recent Higgs boson discovery, and demonstrating the first-ever teleportation of information between atoms. Our astronomers probe the origin of the universe with one of the world’s premier radio observatories, and have just discovered water on the moon. Our computer scientists are developing the principles for guaranteed security and privacy in information systems.

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Driven by the pursuit of excellence, the University of Maryland has enjoyed a remarkable rise in accomplishment and reputation over the past two decades. By any measure, Maryland is now one of the nation’s preeminent public research universities and on a path to become one of the world’s best. To fulfill this promise, we must capitalize on our momentum, fully exploit our competitive advantages, and pursue ambitious goals with great discipline and entrepreneurial spirit. This promise is within reach. This strategic plan is our working agenda.

The plan is comprehensive, bold, and action oriented. It sets forth a vision of the University as an institution unmatched in its capacity to attract talent, address the most important issues of our time, and produce the leaders of tomorrow. The plan will guide the investment of our human and material resources as we strengthen our undergraduate and graduate programs and expand research, outreach and partnerships, become a truly international center, and enhance our surrounding community.

Our success will benefit Maryland in the near and long term, strengthen the State’s competitive capacity in a challenging and changing environment and enrich the economic, social and cultural life of the region. We will be a catalyst for progress, the State’s most valuable asset, and an indispensable contributor to the nation’s well-being. Achieving the goals of Transforming Maryland requires broad-based and sustained support from our extended community. We ask our stakeholders to join with us to make the University an institution of world-class quality with world-wide reach and unparalleled impact as it serves the people and the state of Maryland.

Our researchers are also at the cusp of the new biology for the 21st century, with bioscience emerging as a key area in almost all CMNS disciplines. Entomologists are learning how climate change affects the behavior of insects, and earth science faculty are coupling physical and biosphere data to predict that change. Geochemists are discovering how our planet evolved to support life, and biologists and entomologists are discovering how evolutionary processes have operated in living organisms. Our biologists have learned how human generated sound affects aquatic organisms, and cell biologists and computer scientists use advanced genomics to study disease and host-pathogen interactions. Our mathematicians are modeling the spread of AIDS, while our astronomers are searching for habitable exoplanets.

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CMNS is also a national resource for educating and training the next generation of leaders. Many of our major programs are ranked among the top 10 of public research universities in the nation. CMNS offers every student a high-quality, innovative and cross-disciplinary educational experience that is also affordable. Strongly committed to making science and mathematics studies available to all, CMNS actively encourages and supports the recruitment and retention of women and minorities.

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Our students have the unique opportunity to work closely with first-class faculty in state-of-the-art labs both on and off campus, conducting real-world, high-impact research on some of the most exciting problems of modern science. 87% of our undergraduates conduct research and/or hold internships while earning their bachelor’s degree. CMNS degrees command respect around the world, and open doors to a wide variety of rewarding career options. Many students continue on to graduate school; others find challenging positions in high-tech industry or federal laboratories, and some join professions such as medicine, teaching, and law.