A team of undergraduate science and engineering students from New York University Abu Dhabi has spent the past several months preparing for a unique opportunity. As finalists in the Tests in Orbit competition conducted through a partnership between DreamUp, Nanoracks, the UAE Space Agency, and Higher Colleges of Technology, the team is preparing to send a research payload to the International Space Station (ISS).
The experiment, known as Characterizing Human Immunodeficiency in Microgravity Environments (CHIME), studies the effect of microgravity on one pathway of immune cell differentiation. In the human body, white blood cells called monocytes transform into macrophages. These macrophages play an important role in the immune system, removing unwanted cells and cleaning up cellular debris. Studying this process in space could provide insight into how microgravity affects the immune system.
Learning that they would be sending an experiment to space was an exciting moment. Rumail Memon, an engineering student and member of the CHIME team, describes the announcement at the 2019 Global Space Congress as “surreal” and unexpected. However, the team had little time to process the news before they began the hard work of sending their research to space.
“As soon as we found out we won, we had to start talking to people to figure out how everything was going to work and the timeline it would happen in,” says CHIME team member Sion Hau. Now, more than a year since the team started, the experiment is planned to launch on SpaceX CRS-21, currently scheduled for late November 2020.
Collaboration across disciplines was an important part of the project. “The team formed because we were just a group of friends that wanted to do something together,” Hau adds, “so when it came to deciding on a topic for the project, it ended up just being what we were interested in.” The team includes students from Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science, Physics, and Biology majors. These different skills allowed the team to work together and divide up responsibilities.
The payload development process gave students important hands-on experience that supported their coursework. For Memon, developing the payload electronics was different from previous projects in his engineering classes. He says, “As part of the experiment, we needed to think about how to turn things on and off without having access to the payload directly. When you’re in a classroom, you can just switch on a power supply, but this project made me think about how things are powered in the real world.” Likewise, Hau was able to use her previous experience working with microfluidic chips to contribute to the biology part of the experiment, which integrated easily with the Nanolab hardware provided by Nanoracks.
It hasn’t been an easy journey for the CHIME team. Like many students during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have persisted through the transition to remote learning and adjusted their lab work to follow social distancing guidelines and other health protocols. At times, the team discussed and planned the lab work on video calls ahead of time, so that one or two team members could carry out the tasks as quickly and safely as possible in the lab. Balancing their research with coursework and extracurricular activities has been another challenge for the team. The completion of the CHIME project is a remarkable achievement that shows the students’ resilience in the face of uncertainty.
The CHIME team is looking forward to the launch outcome. The experiment on the ISS will be compared to an identical control experiment on Earth, so it will take time for the team to analyze the results after the payload is recovered. “We’re not sure that everything will go 100% according to plan, and we’ve heard of launches being scrubbed for reasons that could be beyond our control,” says Hau. For this reason, the team members are nervous but excited about the possibility of finally completing the project.
When asked what advice she would give to students interested in pursuing space research, Hau pointed to the importance of mentorship. According to the team, support from faculty mentors at NYU Abu Dhabi was an essential part of the payload development process. Adding to this, Memon emphasized the value of clear communication and sharing responsibilities. “It’s important to never have just one person responsible for one aspect of the project, so that with at least two people, you can work together if one person gets overwhelmed,” he says. The team looks forward to taking these lessons with them as they approach future projects and prepare to graduate in 2021.
Understanding the effects of microgravity on immune system function is particularly important to support astronaut health during longer spaceflights, such as those needed to reach Mars. The discoveries made by the CHIME team could be a valuable step toward this goal.
For more information about how DreamUp enables student research in space, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Alison Waterman – DreamUp Project Specialist