This is an interview with Valkyrie Falciani and Danielle Ertz, two students who participated in the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program, a DreamUp partner, while attending Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey. Their experiment, “Spores in Space” uses a MixStix to investigate the function of microgravity on endomycorrhizae, which is the symbiotic relationship between certain types of fungi and plant roots. Valkyrie and Danielle gave us some insight into how they got into researching in space, and what it’s meant for them. Valkyrie earned her BS in Marine Biology at Stockton University, and she is also currently enrolled at Stockton University as a Teacher Education Major. Danielle earned her BS degree in Biology from Stockton University, and she is currently enrolled in a MS degree program in Biology at Rutgers University – Camden.
DreamUp: What first sparked your interest in space?
Valkyrie Falciani: I think I’ve always been interested in space. Anyone who has ever looked up at the night sky would be. However it was not really a main focus of mine until I started this project, it was always just something wonderful and far away.
Danielle Ertz: Honestly, for me it was probably science fiction that first got me interested. My dad always seemed to have SciFi channel on when I was a kid, but it wasn’t until I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, before working on this project, that I really got interested in the mysteries of the cosmos.
DU: How did you hear about the opportunity to send research to the ISS?
VF: Our college, Stockton University, often sends out promotional emails about various activities and opportunities around campus. I got a flyer in an email one day and since the information session about SSEP didn’t interfere with my classes I decided to check it out. Before I knew it I was signed up for the class!
DE: My story is very similar to Valkyrie’s. I received the email forwarded to me by my physics professor, and although I had a fairly busy schedule that semester, I didn’t see the harm in checking it out. After only one info session, I was hooked.
DU: How did you come up with an idea to research?
VF: Danielle and I started a Google Doc where we started listing different ideas and we narrowed it down to four that we liked. From there we did some preliminary research on each one and picked the two that we thought would work best within the constraints of the FME mini lab. We finally settled on endomycorrhizae, which had been Danielle’s idea, because it was our favorite and we knew we could make it work.
DE: I find plants incredibly beautiful, not just forms they come in, but the ways they interact with their environment and other organisms. During the time we were coming up with ideas for this project, I was taking a course about plant physiology and we were learning the physiology of roots. Endomycorrizae was a part a big part of the chapter, but I still wanted to learn more about it, so I added it to our list of project ideas.
DU: What does it mean, for you, as a female in the sciences, to engage in research in space?
VF: Science research can sometimes feel very abstract. Growing up, going to school, you are given plenty of science lessons with experiments but these are always pre-planned with set outcomes that teachers can easily implement in the classroom. I have not had the opportunity before to design and develop an experiment from scratch, that was something you heard of other people doing. I come from a long line of strong, intelligent women. My mother is a chemist and my paternal grandmother would have gone into the sciences if the second world war had not interrupted her education. While we are seeing the gender gap in sciences gradually close it still means alot to me to inspire other girls to pursue STEM fields as the women in my life have inspired me.
DE: I still find it surreal to think that an idea that we were playing with on paper is now a real thing that is orbiting our planet. Where I live, I can’t see the stars at night, so space research has always felt like an abstract idea. I guess, working on this project has made it feel more real to me, that there is more than just our planet in the universe. And, I think that is a perspective that would have value to any current or prospective scientists, regardless of gender.
DU: What do you hope to gain from this experiment?
VF: We are hoping to gain a better understanding of how endomycorrhizae works in microgravity and if this is something that we can use to improve agriculture for long term space travel. No matter how the experiment on the ISS turns out we will be contributing to this area of research in some way.
DE: Like Valkyrie said, the results of this experiment will hopefully show us the effects that gravity has on endomycorrhizae. We hope that this information could be useful for long term space travel and possibly even in the agriculture of other planets.
What have you gained from the experience of engaging in space research?
VF: It has been such an amazing experience and I have learned so much! Everything from writing the proposal, to making our experiment a reality has been new and exciting. I have also had the opportunity to see the launch of the mission 11 rocket and I have met some incredible people I would not have met otherwise.
DE: I gained a new perspective that I will always cherish. Before this project I was a student who simply learned from the experiments of others, but this was a chance to experiment for myself and really feel like a part of the scientific community. I’ll always be grateful for that.
DU: What are your plans for the future? Will you continue in the sciences?
VF: I absolutely plan on continuing with the sciences! I cannot imagine not being involved in the sciences! I am currently getting a second degree in teaching and plan on teaching high school biology. My hope is that I will have the chance to work with SSEP again as a teacher, rather than a student, so that I can help those students get involved with real research and inspire them as this project has inspired me.
DE: I’m definitely going to continue with the sciences. There’s still so much that I want to learn about our planet and the universe that we live in. I am going to continue my education, studying biology in graduate school, and hopefully I will be able to share with others what I have discovered for myself one day.