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Scientists, Middle School Students Team Up to Learn More about Life in Space

May 17, 2018 | By Cynthia Dillon      

Eva-Maria Collins (far left) works with young scientists from Vista Magnet Middle School. Photo courtesy of Christine Bartee

With the potential of human space tourism becoming an everyday reality, scientists are contemplating biological and engineering challenges currently unfamiliar on Earth. So, recent research supported by University of California San Diego Divisions of Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences, and the National Science Foundation, paired present-day scientists with future scientists in anticipation of study in space.   

Research led by sixth-grade science teacher Christine Bartee at Vista Magnet Middle School in San Diego County brought together five of her female students, biophysicist Eva-Maria Collins and UC San Diego biology Ph.D. student Danielle Hagstrom through the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education’s Student Spaceflight Experiment Program (SSEP). The extraordinary all-female research team investigated how microgravity affects planarians—common freshwater flatworms known for their unique ability to regenerate, or self-repair. Understanding the process of this ability could inspire future regenerative therapies in humans.

The team’s research was recently published in “Frontiers in Astronomy and Space,” in an article titled: “Studying Planarian Regeneration aboard the International Space Station (ISS) within the Student Space Flight Experimental Program.” Notably, the joint article was published in a special edition highlighting the contribution of women in science. Through systematic analysis and post-flight studies, the team generated protocol modifications which present the opportunity for successful future experiments on the effects of microgravity on planarian regeneration on SSEP missions, as well as for more advanced experiments by professional researchers.

Two prior studies conducted aboard the ISS showed that regeneration in planarians is possible in microgravity. One study reported no regenerative defects. The other study showed that 1 of 15 planarians regenerated into a worm with two heads. This “Janus head” phenomenon is unobserved under natural conditions on earth, suggesting that microgravity exposure may not be without consequences.

While the young student researchers were unable to study planarian generation within the experimental constraints of the SSEP mission, working together with the UC San Diego scientists, they learned that scientific progress results from experimental successes as well as failures. The team emphasized in its research paper how access to prior results is important for the future success of SSEP missions, allowing researchers to build upon prior experiments and achieve scientific progress.

Collins and Hagstrom shared how important this mentorship opportunity was to them, noting that the five young female students haven’t experienced restrictions on going into science because of their gender.

SSEP aims to inspire “the next generation of scientists and engineers,” and it serves students from different communities, including grades 5–12, community colleges and universities. The program focuses on providing its students the experience to work like “real scientists” and participate in all parts of the scientific process, including conceptualization and design of a scientific experiment, engaging in a two-step proposal competition and performing the actual experiment while learning to work within financial and experimental constraints. Since its inception in 2010, the SSEP program has conducted 10 space missions and reports that 76 biological experiments have been presented at the Annual SSEP Conference between 2012 and 2017.

UC San Diego scientists in the Divisions of Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences prepare the next generation of global leaders to channel their passions into driving innovation, fueling economic growth and making our world a better place.

Physical Sciences

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Cynthia Dillon
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