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Undergraduates gain recognition from NASA in student competition

| Thursday, April 15, 2021

In Aug. 2020, NASA launched the Student Payload Opportunity with Citizen Science (SPOCS). The competition was open to college, university, and graduate students interested in researching topics related to bacteria resistance and sustainability, both of which are critical to further deep space exploration. 

Last summer, Katy Ryan, a senior majoring in biological sciences with a minor in Irish Studies, stumbled upon a tweet promoting the SPOCS competition as a way to get involved in space science research. 

“That’s a pretty hard field to break into, so I leapt at the chance,” she said. 

In the last few days of August, she began to form a team. By the second week of Sept., she had three students — Notre Dame students sophomore Gracy Ryan and senior Andrea Lebron and University of Arizona student Ryan O’Hara — ready to enter the competition with her. Not long after, Dr. Joshua Shrout, associate professor of civil engineering and biological sciences, agreed to work with them as their advisor. 

Courtesy of Katy Ryan
Notre Dame students Katy Ryan, Grace Ryan and Andrea Lebron as well as Arizona student Ryan O’Hara joined together to form the Vulcans and enter a NASA competition last fall to send a self-made experiment to space.

With a deadline of Oct. 20, the team, who named themselves the Vulcans, had less than two months to work on a 55-page proposal. 

“Our team met every week in person and over Zoom and spent numerous hours throughout each week working on it,” Katy Ryan said. 

Katy Ryan said their team was at a great disadvantage. Most other teams not only consisted of more people, but many had been aware of the competition and had been working on their projects for almost a year. 

“One of the funded teams had over 20 students dedicated to working on their project but was incorporated in a larger space club of thousands of students and numerous advisors on campus — including a former astronaut — who were able to pitch in,” Katy Ryan said. 

Even so, the team was not discouraged; they had work that needed to be done. 

Lebron, also a senior biological sciences major, explained the aims of their proposal; it was designed to better quantify and characterize fundamental biological changes that take place in microorganisms exposed to microgravity. The Vulcans planned to do so by examining differences in growth, mutagenic frequency (how often bacteria mutates), spectrum of mutations (types of mutations seen) in two bacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa (PAO1) and VCS1, when exposed to microgravity as compared to Earth.

Additionally, their plan sought to determine and quantify how microgravity affects differences in motility — a measurement of how well the bacteria can move — and nutrient availability.

“Understanding these fundamental changes better could potentially help us create more effective treatments for diseases caused by microorganisms in space, which would better prepare astronauts for the deep-space travel required in future Artemis missions.” Katy Ryan said. 

Their research did not stop there. It also included extensive citizen science and educational outreach programs that aimed to engage future researchers and scientists and enable them to learn more about the ISS and bacterial resistance. Their comprehensive outreach plan aimed to closely involve the general public in their findings. 

Results regarding which groups were finalists was set to come out in an email in the final weeks of of the 2020 fall semester. 

Grace Ryan, a business analytics major and project leader in the SIBC STEM Division, recalled the day as nerve-racking. 

“I remember how incredibly nervous we all were the day finalists were supposed to be announced. Our anticipation only worsened as the announcement was then delayed, but then we finally received an email,” Grace Ryan said. 

Their team had been selected as finalists. Katy Ryan can still envision waking up to the news.

“I remember falling asleep listening to NASA’s “Houston We Have a Podcast” and dreaming about space, only to be woken up to a phone call the next morning from Andy celebrating our placement as finalists in a nation-wide NASA competition,” Katy Ryan said

Grace Ryan echoed her excitement. 

“I still can’t explain the feeling of reading [the email]; it was a moment of pure joy in realizing that all of our hard work and dedication had ultimately created something NASA approved of and saw potential in,” Grace Ryan said. 

Making it to this round, their team had to present their proposal virtually to a panelist of scientists, engineers and educators in December. 

Although the Vulcans did not receive the $20,000 prize in funding that would allow them to send their experiment to space, making the final round was a tremendous accomplishment. 

Because this space-research-based competition was unique to other programs at Notre Dame, it called on the participants to use and discover new skills. Grace Ryan specifically felt changed because of it. 

“This experience has given me the inspiration to push past my comfort zone and further pursue my passions for space science and exploration. It’s encouraged me to expand my involvement in STEM and ultimately look towards a future that can involve these interests,” Grace Ryan said. 

Lebron encourages other students to do the same — to pursue activities that do not always align with their studies. 

“Follow opportunities that you just don’t think you would have done. College is the time to explore and just do crazy things, especially in the academic aspect,” Lebron said.

She also encourages students to take on any and all opportunities that interest them. 

“I don’t think I’ll ever have a chance to do something like that ever again, just to use my science in something that I’m just very passionate about,” Lebron said. 

Pursuing work that is enjoyable is never wasted time, Lebron confirmed. To her, those experiences are the ones truly worthwhile. 

Katy Ryan echoed her thoughts, reminding students that they will never know what they are capable of achieving unless they try. 

Katy Ryan advised anyone pursuing a field in STEM “to try to get as much and as varied experience as you can in undergrad, and take a chance on yourself whenever possible.”

Although their proposal did not make it to space, it was a mark of achievement for the Notre Dame community.

As more undergraduates hear of their experiences, Katy Ryan hopes that they “use it as motivation to pursue their dreams, even if they’re as far away as the stars.” 

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