About seven months ago, four engineers sat in the lounge area between the Armadillo Grill and McDonald's, penning down ideas on napkins--ideas they hoped would blossom into proposals they could submit to NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program.
"We thought these napkins would be famous one day," said Isaac Chan, one of the brainstormers. "But we didn't use any of those ideas."
Their ideas did evolve, however. They eventually hit upon the concept of examining the effects of microgravity and hypergravity on bone and muscle cell structures. Microgravity and hypergravity are forces that are lesser and greater, respectively, than the normal pull of gravity.
Two months later, in December, Chan and his fellow juniors--Dan Choi, John Fang and Gary Sing--were notified via e-mail that they had been accepted.
"I wrote 'I'm going to be an astronaut!' on my away message," Chan recalled. "And then I ran into John's room and jumped up and down."
This is the first time Duke students will be participating in the program, which selects teams of college students from across the country to perform reduced gravity experiments on a FC-135A airplane, better known as the "Vomit Comet." This plane simulates microgravity for approximately 30 seconds at a time while flying in a parabolic trajectory over the Gulf of Mexico.
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The four Duke students begin their adventure at Houston in July; in the meantime, they're preparing for the summer by conducting experiments on-campus. Using a centrifuge, they simulate hypergravity at different speeds to see how the extra force effects bone and muscle cell structures. To see how the cells are affected they measure how much the nuclei have moved.
"We want to see how the nuclei react," Sing explained.
The nuclei are injected with a fluorescent dye that lights them up when viewed through a confocal microscope. This microscope allows them to see three-dimensional images of their slides as well as take slices of their samples.
From their experiment results, they hope to address "present concerns of muscle atrophy and loss of bone density during extended exposure to microgravity conditions," according to the quartet's proposal.
The group runs these experiments "as often as [they] have cells," Fang said. The cells have to be bought, along with almost everything else they need for their experiments at both Duke and Houston. NASA provides little equipment besides the plane.
"NASA didn't give jack," said Fang.
Chan added, "We have to pay for our own physicals!"
Their financial woes have been alleviated by a $2,000 grant from the engineering alumni board, and the four students have worked hard to obtain money elsewhere to support their work. Conveniently, they will temporarily board at Fang's residence in Houston while they participate in the program.
But the most difficult obstacle for them so far has been finding the right centrifuge.
Initially, they were going to use one of the bigger centrifuges in the confines of their laboratory and adapt their experiments to its size and force.
"This guy... is huge," Fang said, hugging the lid of a centrifuge the size of a laundry machine.
Just last month, however, the group discovered the answer to their problems--or rather, Steve Wallace, a helpful graduate student, did.
"He found it on a shelf," Sing said, gesturing at a simple contraption that barely tops one foot in height. "It was just sitting there."
Wallace was just one of several that helped the four engineering students along the way. Another crucial person is George Truskey, professor of biomedical engineering and the faculty advisor for the project. Truskey meets with the group on a weekly basis to talk about their progress and any problems they had encountered. He also provides contacts for them, at one time introducing his students to a doctor in California who briefed them on certain protocol.
The real stars of the show, however, are the engineering quartet.
"They've worked as a group and put together a project under these stringent conditions," Truskey praised. He added that the program was an exciting opportunity for the students to be able to design an experiment that they would later test on one of the NASA flights.
Choi echoed Truskey's sentiment: "This is cool because it's an opportunity that only astronauts usually get to experience."
Although some members of the group are prone to motion sickness, all look forward to experiencing weightlessness amid the "Vomit Comet."
"It's every little kid's dream," Chan said.