07:08 AM

Summer Scholars Research 'Out of this World' Biotechnology Applications

NASA's history is rich with the story of human space exploration and, although the chapter on the Shuttle Program has come to an end, the continued support of missions to the International Space Station as well as the announcement of a new deep space exploration system keeps the mission alive. However, there are many risks associated with astronauts living in microgravity, making it essential for organizations, such as USRA's Division of Space Life Sciences (DSLS) at Johnson Space Center (JSC), to focus on the "human" in human space exploration.

DSLS Director, Dr. Neal Pellis, maintained, "DSLS has the mission to support NASA and other Federal entities by conducting and managing research that addresses the risks to humans before, during, and after space exploration."

One program that falls under this mission is the NASA Science and Technology Institute (NSTI), which provides research opportunities to students and faculty from Minority Institutions. This year, NSTI Summer Scholars Program Interns Deidra Huff and Demitrius Boyson joined NASA Mentor Dr. Pamela Denkins at JSC to participate in a 10 week, hands-on, multi-project experience concerning the mitigation of the effects of microgravity and radiation on astronauts in space.

"During long duration space missions, the immune system of the astronauts may be adversely affected and weakened," explained NASA Mentor Denkins. "High energy radiation is also considered a problem on long term missions which may also impact the immune system. Endogenous cannabinoids, which stimulate the production of and bind with receptors to act as neurotransmitters, are being studied because they are naturally produced by the body and have antitumor and immune enhancing properties. To enhance the expression of the naturally occurring molecules, analogs have been synthesized which mimic their functions. The goal of the series of experiments was to determine and advance an insight into the efficacy of these synthesized compounds on normal and cancer cells in microgravity environments and after radiation exposure - conditions similar to those astronauts would experience during space travel."

Essentially, for biology majors Huff, a Jarvis Christian College senior, and Boyson, a Tougaloo College junior, this project presented the opportunity to apply concepts they learned in school in a real world, or in the case of NASA, "an out of this world" environment. Huff indicated, "The internship proved to boost me educationally because I was able to work out of my natural environment. In comparison to my school, this internship allowed me to use everything that I had learned such as effective critical thinking skills, various laboratory techniques, avid communication methods in addition to my leadership methods and put them to use."

During their time at NASA, Huff and Boyson conducted experiments in micro gravity created through the use of bioreactor and radiation source technologies. These technologies, which were new to the geographically dispersed team, presented the team's main challenge. Yet, by becoming familiarized with articles, journals, and other research conducted in relation to these new technologies, the interns were able to get up to speed on the developing project, and were even asked to present their findings at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, which was held in St. Louis, Mo., from November 9 to 11. The conference hosted over 1,700 undergraduate students, 400 graduate student, and 1200 faculty, program directors and administrators, providing Huff and Boyson with an excellent networking opportunity as well as a professional development experience in communication. While at the conference, Huff revealed that as she exchanged findings with others, it provided a sounding board that allowed her "to reevaluate and look at some pathways of studying my project that [she] had not thought of before."

Through their experiences at NASA, Huff and Boyson not only fine-tuned their communication skills through writing technical reports and giving formal presentations, but they also were able to acclimate to the NASA lab culture working with cutting edge technologies in the realm of biomedical research concerning endogenous cannabinoids. This research may also one day lead to terrestrial applications for improving the human immune system and for advancing cancer research. On working with Denkins, Huff said, "She was always calm...I learned that no matter the circumstance, good or bad, one must remain calm with a lifelong thrust of passion."

In terms of Huff and Boyson's contributions to the project, Denkins compared the technical productivity of both interns to that of a full time employee, stating, "Deidra and Demitrius were diligent and worked extremely hard to accomplish the established objectives for the intern experience. This included travel to facilities external to the Center to gain relevant skills and working late to complete tasks."

So what is next for Huff and Boyson? Huff plans to pursue a doctorate in osteopathy and get a PhD in immunology or medical science, while Boyson plans to attend medical school after he graduates in 2013. And with the experiences NSTI afforded them, they are on the right path to STEM success.

The Universities Space Research Association's Division of Space Life Sciences (DSLS) supports NASA's needs for understanding and counteracting the physiological changes that accompany space flight. Based at USRA Houston, the DSLS manages extramural research programs, administers educational programs, coordinates a visiting/staff scientist program, and enhances collaboration between NASA and academic institutions through an extensive series of conferences, workshops, and seminars. This USRA division was established in 1983 as the Division of Space Biomedicine and facilitates participation of the university community in biomedical research programs at the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC).