With continued Lunar missions on the horizon and the possibility of Martian exploration only decades away, today’s undergraduate students need to be prepared to solve the bioscientific challenges that increased space exploration will bring.
Yet conducting experiments in space can be a costly exercise, preventing even well-funded researchers – let alone students – from sending experiments to the International Space Station (ISS).
A collaboration between Dr Julie Keeble in the School of Basic & Medical Biosciences and the International Space School Educational Trust (ISSET) transcends this barrier by connecting high school students on ISSET’s Mission Discovery programme with King’s undergraduate biosciences students to launch fully functional experiments to the ISS.
The Mission Discovery summer school, hosted annually by the Centre for Human & Applied Physiological Sciences at King’s, introduces 14- to 18-year-olds to Space & STEM research under the guidance of NASA astronauts and engineers. The teenagers come up with ideas for experiments which King’s undergraduate students then develop further – learning how to balance the constraints of performing an experiment in microgravity while maximising scientific benefit.
Mission Discovery projects provide King’s students with a unique and rare opportunity to develop a space experiment and have their research carried out on the ISS. Their input into the experiments is invaluable to ensuring the success of these research projects and significantly enhances their research skills."– Dr Julie Keeble
This year King’s students were involved in five experiments which were recently launched to the ISS from Wallops Island on the Northrup Grumman-18. The experiments investigate microgravity’s effects on cell division, root pressure, vermicomposting, protein function and bioplastic production – all processes that could influence how we are able to use space in the future.
For example, understanding microgravity’s effect on root pressure could help scientists identify a new method to improve the efficiency of plant growth in space, while experiments into Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) are investigating whether this biodegradable plastic material can be produced in microgravity.
Zoe Gaffen, multidisciplinary teaching lab technician at King’s, is an essential part of the research team, supporting all aspects of experiment development. Having this technical support for experiment development and student support makes a huge different to the research outcomes.
Time spent with the Keeble Group has provided students with a multidisciplinary setting in which to problem solve, employing bioscience learnings to better understand human health and biology in space. They walk away from these studies empowered and equipped with the valuable technical expertise required to handle biological spaceflight experiments.
Daniel Molland is one such student. Linked to the Keeble Group during his Bachelors and Masters degrees at King’s, Daniel was involved in the development of over five experiments while at King’s, kickstarting his keen interest into astrobiology and ISS payload development. Now at the University of Oxford pursuing his PhD, Daniel credits the opportunities he was afforded while at King’s as inspiration for his chosen career:
Working within the Keeble group empowered me with key skills in experimental development, especially in taking an experimental system that works on Earth and making that function within the unique microgravity found onboard the ISS. The responsibility of designing an experiment for space really allowed me to take ownership of my personal development and inspired me to take that same approach to my PhD, which I achieved by submitting and being approved for a PhD grant from the European Space Agency while still an undergraduate. A process that was only achievable thanks to the support I received from Dr Keeble throughout my time in the group.” – Daniel Molland