NASA Selects UNH at Manchester Student Experiment to Launch into Space
02/01/2021

UNH at Manchester students started their experiment in the Small World Initiative classroom. Now, they're working with NASA to send their experiment to space.

Online PR News – 01-February-2021 – NEW YORK, NY – “You can start as a freshman in a Small World Initiative class, and then you can send something off to space with NASA.” – Sydney Rollins

This is exactly what happened for University of New Hampshire at Manchester students Sydney Rollins, D. Raymond Miller, Irma Vrevic, and Thomas Gerton, a team of student researchers under Faculty Advisor Dr. Sue Cooke. The team created an experiment that was one of five chosen by NASA to be sent to the International Space Station.

The experiment will examine how soil bacteria evolve or mutate in space and will identify if there are more antibiotic-producing bacteria in space versus on Earth by comparing a sample sent to space against a control sample that will stay on Earth.

“Part of the way that [bacteria] can act differently [in space] is to be more resistant to antibiotics, which means they are more dangerous for the astronauts who are in space … we’re able to study the mutations, antibiotic resistance, and antibiotic production,” Rollins explained. The team hopes that the results of the experiment will not only help improve astronaut health but will also help source new antibiotics that can be used on Earth.

This experiment will also use the isolation chip (“ichip”), a technology patented by Dr. Slava Epstein and his colleagues at Northeastern University. The ichip is a device used to isolate and grow soil bacteria in situ (directly in soil). It consists of a small plastic plate with hundreds of laser-drilled holes or “chambers.” Each chamber gets loaded with, on average, one bacterial cell and molten agar. The plastic plate is then tightly covered in membranes. Once the assembled device is placed in soil, the membranes’ pores, which are too small for bacteria, allow growth factors like nutrients to diffuse into the small agar plugs with single cells.

Epstein has found this incredibly simple yet powerful device has allowed him to cultivate 300 times more colonies than using standard laboratory techniques. Team Cooke’s use of this device increases the chance that there will be more diversity among the bacteria that are able to grow and could supercharge the team’s experiment. Aside from allowing the team to use his patented technology, Epstein has also been advising the team and has invited the group to visit and train in his lab at Northeastern.

“I look forward to welcoming these promising student researchers into my lab. They are truly passionate, and that passion is contagious and bound to inspire other students. I have no doubt their experiment is a launch of a new beginning in student space exploration and discovery,” asserted Epstein. While the ichip has made it to remote places with extreme environments from deserts in South America and mangroves in Asia to tundra in the High Arctic, this is the first time it will be leaving Earth!

One aspect the members of the team were grateful for was the support they received. “The biggest thing for me has been to learn how willing and open people are from outside organizations to lend a hand in a project of this scale … it’s been great to be able to have this environment where there’s such a large support for independent research,” Miller emphasized.

The team also thanked Erika L. Kurt, Small World Initiative’s President and CEO, who has been an “invaluable resource.” According to Miller, “A big part of Erika’s contribution has just been unwavering support … from the very initial drafts of our proposal all the way to the final product. She was there every step of the way to add advice where she could.”

“Just generally, the Small World Initiative was the beginning of all of our research. Without that, we wouldn’t be here either,” Rollins added. For three of the four team members, a microbiology class at UNH at Manchester that is taught by Dr. Cooke and based on the Small World Initiative’s protocol was actually their introduction to antibiotic resistance and what piqued their interest in microbiology research.

Initiated at Yale University in 2012 and spun off as a separate nonprofit in 2016, the Small World Initiative aims to inspire the next generation in STEM while tackling the growing global antibiotic crisis. Each year, the organization trains educators around the world to engage their students in hands-on field and laboratory research on soil samples in the hunt to find new drugs to treat infectious diseases known as antibiotic-resistant pathogens or “superbugs.” This is particularly important because most antibiotics come from soil bacteria. To amplify the organization’s impact, Kurt has been working with Epstein to bring ichips to the Small World Initiative classroom and has been thrilled to work with members of Team Cooke on their space-bound experiment.

The team members really emphasized how excited they were for the outreach part of their experiment. They plan to split the outreach into two parts—they will not only visit and present their project to various schools and host symposia, but they will also allow middle schoolers to be involved in the experiment. The team plans to allow middle school students in the Manchester area to submit proposals about which soil the team should use and then assemble a team of middle schoolers who will participate in microbiology experiments.

“The biggest thing is being able to reach out to inner city school students that may not come from … advantaged backgrounds … introducing them to a really successful way of building their scientific knowledge. You’re able to show that they’re able to go into science fields,” Miller said.

“Research is not inaccessible, anyone can do it,” Rollins added.

Those who have been working with Team Cooke have been impressed with how committed the members of the team have been as well as the potential real-world impacts of their experiment.

“They worked on the project all summer long, conducting everything remotely, … and returned in the fall to meet all the deadlines. [There were] never any excuses about not getting something done,” according to Cooke.

“The competition was extremely strong, and the selection of Team Cooke’s NoMADS (Novel Methods of Antibiotic Discovery in Space) project is a testament to the depth of hard work and motivation that is the core of this talented group of students and faculty,” maintained Dr. Kyle MacLea, UNH at Manchester’s Program Coordinator for Biosciences and Biotechnology.

“Throughout this project, I have been consistently impressed with Team Cooke’s dedication, drive, and ingenuity. I have been particularly moved by how passionate the team members are about inspiring other students, from middle schoolers to the broader Small World Initiative community, and sharing their science and research. I’m not only excited to see how their experiment will proceed but also what further inquiries it will launch and what else these students will accomplish in the future,” asserted Kurt.

“You can, as a student, have a real-world impact. What we’re doing is real … it’s real-world research that could lead to the development of novel antibiotic compounds. It could lead to changes in space travel, affect how people live in space for extended periods of time and interact with their environments, and help prevent antibiotic resistance in space,” Cooke explained.

“The synergy between Team Cooke at UNHM, the Small World Initiative, outside collaborators, and the NASA scientists that they are now working with to bring this project to completion—and launch into space!—is palpable. ... This experiment shows the power of citizen science conducted by undergraduates to address a real societal problem. We couldn’t be more proud of Team Cooke and NoMADS,” MacLea declared.

Team Cooke’s experiment is scheduled to tentatively launch Winter 2021-Spring 2022. Follow the team’s progress at @unhm.spocs on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok.

ABOUT SMALL WORLD INITIATIVE®
The Small World Initiative® (SWI) is an innovative nonprofit dedicated to transforming STEM education while solving pressing real-world health challenges. Initiated at Yale University in 2012, SWI's primary program engages thousands of students and educators around the world in the hunt to discover new drugs to treat infectious diseases known as superbugs. The program’s unique approach provides an inexpensive “crowdsourcing” model for early-stage drug discovery as well as a blueprint on how to retain students in STEM and increase scientific literacy. To learn more, please visit http://www.smallworldinitiative.org and follow the Small World Initiative on Twitter (@team_swi) and Instagram (@smallworldinitiative).

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