An Interview with Mariel Rico, Payload Integration Engineer

Mike and Mariel

This is an interview with Mariel Rico, who played a chief role in testing and preparing both the Earth and ISS-bound Xtronaut Microbes in Space kits. In this interview, Mariel shares what inspires her, and what it took to make sure everything was perfect for Microbes in Space. Do you want to bring this science to your classroom or home? Contribute to the Kickstarter campaign to make it happen!

DreamUp: What’s your current role, and how did you get there?

Mariel Rico: I am a Payload Integration Engineer at NanoRacks. I am responsible for helping payloads through integration processes and ground and flight operations. Prior to working at NanoRacks, I interned at NASA Johnson Space Center and Goddard Space Flight Center. I have also worked at the National Air and Space Museum as an Explainer. I have a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering.

DU: What first sparked your interest in space?

MR: I became interested in space through cartoons. It really put the idea of going to the moon and seeing celestial bodies up close in my head! From that exposure, I was able to nurture that interest through STEM events and library visits (thanks for the car rides mom and dad). Becoming an engineer seemed like the obvious choice when I discovered that I had a knack for science and mathematics.

DU: What does testing an experiment for flight entail? How is it different than testing for the ground?

MR: The main difference between testing ground and flight kits is the amount of planning that needs to happen. Microgravity can make simple activities tedious because objects will not stay in place. We try to help astronauts out by packing experiments in a certain way or adding Velcro and handles to hardware to make them easier to handle. Another consideration is communicating payload needs in a concise, but clear manner. There is often more than one person who will handle the experiment, so it is important that everyone understand their role and experiment expectations to have a successful mission. Not to mention, resources are abundant on Earth. If something goes wrong, it is easy to clean up or buy new supplies, but in space those resources may not be readily available.

DU: What was your favorite part about participating in the Microbes in Space kit testing?

MR: Testing the microbial kit was a new experience for me! I have not done anything like this before, so it was great to work with Carl, a true scientist, and pick his brain about the world around us from a microscopic level.

DU: Was there anything unexpected that you encountered in your testing?

MR: It was interesting to see how some surfaces proved to be dirtier than we originally hypothesize. One would believe that the urinal handle would be icky simply because it is in the bathroom. Turns out that the bathroom is an area that get cleaned often, so those swab samples did not produce as many microbe colonies. It was also a great reminder that we are never truly alone; we just cannot see all of the microbes around us!

DU: What do you think kids will find exciting about the Microbes in Space kit?

MR: I think kids who utilize the Microbes in Space Kit will have a similar experience as me. It is an additional way to see and understand the world around them – a part of the world they haven’t been able to see until now!

DU: Why do you think it is important to get kids engaged in space research from an early age?

MR: Hands-on experiences, such as these, are great learning points because they are unique and memorable. It is hard to make a lasting impression through PowerPoint slides and white board notes, but who could forget the day they performed their own experiment and got to claim ownership of its results? Experiences like these will continue to feed a long-term interest, hopefully that lasts until students can train the next generation of scientist after their own!

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