Kennedy Space Center (KSC)
Aug. 2020 – Dec. 2020
Goals of your project/s:
The goal of this internship was to build a strong bioinformatics and space biology background to pinpoint trends in plants flown on previous spaceflight missions. Comparing this transcriptomic data identifies specific genes with altered function, expression, or relevance in microgravity. As spaceflight exploration ventures deeper into our solar system, astronauts will need a fresh, sustainable food source to maintain health and wellness. Understanding how plants are affected in spaceflight enables researchers to optimize growing conditions for peak nutritional value and harvest index.
Describe what you did during the internship:
I began this internship by researching spaceflight induced stressors on the human body. With an interest in plants and nutrition, I sought information on how the right diet can boost astronaut health, performance, and wellbeing. My research led to an informative literature review on the potential for microgreens to supplement the pre-packaged spaceflight diet. Microgreens are small, nutrient-dense plants requiring little horticultural demands. Topics in this review include the nutritional composition of microgreens, light conditions for optimal growth, and potential dietary countermeasures to the negative health effects in spaceflight. Microgreens are rich in bioactive compounds called carotenoids. These are pigments that give many plants their deep red, orange, and yellow colors. They provide a wealth of health benefits when consumed by humans, particularly through their vision enhancing potential and antioxidant properties. Vision is often affected in spaceflight. Plants rich in certain carotenoids may act as a therapeutic and preventative measure to protect vision health. In the second half of my internship, I compared carotenoid biosynthetic genes in Arabidopsis thaliana grown on spaceflight missions to see how carotenoid accumulation was impacted. This resulted in a paper outlining the health benefits of carotenoids and how synthesis of these compounds is affected in microgravity.
Did you achieve your goals? What were the results and conclusions?
The goals of this internship certainly came to fruition. I feel confident my work will help researchers choose nutritionally dense plants that can supplement the pre-packaged space diet. It is my hope that through this work, the positive impacts of plants on health is widely understood. The literature review on microgreens and paper on carotenoids both highlight the importance of a fresh food supply to not only sustain, but to improve life on future long-range missions. By understanding how specific plant biological processes are impacted, conditions can be altered, and hardware can be built to counteract these changes for efficient space crop production.
Describe positive lessons learned from this experience:
This experience came with a plethora of positive lessons. The virtual environment allowed me to participate in this internship while remaining a full-time student. Balancing these two was challenging yet rewarding. It strengthened my skills in time management, discipline, and most notably, communication. Open and honest communication set clear expectations and fostered an inspiring space for collaboration. I also learned the impact of saying “yes!” This internship came with numerous opportunities to grow my network and build personal and professional skills. Even on some of the tougher days, I made it a priority to attend as many educational meetings as I could. These events included a weekly “Lunch and Learn”, tours of various NASA centers, and topics from innovations in space biology, to novel research on Venus. This semester at NASA opened my eyes to a wealth of possibilities and allowed me to learn endless new information. If there is one thing I learned, it is how powerful curiosity is and the importance of continuously expanding your knowledge base.
Describe negative lessons learned from this experience:
It is difficult to identify any negative lessons from this experience. If anything, the difficulties, or “negatives”, of this semester are what made this opportunity so rewarding. In order to maintain a sound mental state while juggling my various responsibilities, I prioritized time for exercise and healthy meals in my schedule. I also tried to stay as organized and disciplined as possible during the week so that I could relax and refresh on the weekends by enjoying some of my hobbies. Being confronted with so much information in the beginning weeks of my internship seemed overwhelming at the time. However, I am thankful for the diverse range of connections and experiences this internship has given me.