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ASU students spread the word about space, science

student discusses research
March 13, 2014

It’s not enough for scientists to do science or for engineers to engineer things. They have to be able to communicate with the public and help regular people understand why their work is important.

On Feb. 26, students in the Arizona State University NASA Space Grant program set out to do just that. Space Grant is a NASA-funded university program that supports the research initiatives of undergraduate and graduate students.

About 45 student researchers – mostly undergraduates – participated in a poster session outside of Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV. This is in preparation for the Arizona/NASA Space Grant Undergraduate Research Internship Statewide Symposium, and for future presentations. A poster session is a common sight in the professional research world. Researchers print out key information and graphics on a poster roughly 2 by 3 feet and use it to help facilitate discussion about their research results.

“It doesn’t matter what we discover if we do it by ourselves,” said Tom Sharp, associate director for the Arizona Space Grant Consortium and director of Space Grant at ASU. “It could be the most important discovery ever to the handful of people in your field, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t tell people about it.”

The topics of students’ research range anywhere from robotics to modeling the ionosphere to figuring out the best way to teach kids science.

Stephanie Maxwell, a biomedical engineering senior, researched a method to design an at-home fertility test for couples trying to get pregnant and an at-home hormone monitor for women who are already pregnant.

Maxwell’s research topic was motivated by the high number of patients with miscarriages at the Maricopa Integrated Health System hospital.

More than 500,000 pregnancies end in miscarriage each year in the U.S., largely due to hormone imbalance, and more than six million women in the U.S. struggle to become pregnant, Maxwell said.

“The problem with going to see the doctor is that the woman’s prenatal hormone levels are only measured at that one time and place, but during pregnancy, hormone levels can change rapidly,” Maxwell said. Pregnant women with an at-home test could monitor their hormone levels more frequently and possibly prevent miscarriage.

Other students in the program have taken on research with a more iconic NASA feel to it.

Alejandro Miguel Lorenzo, an astrophysics junior, developed a code that calculates the relationship between the mass and radius of an exoplanet (a planet outside of our solar system). The code is the first step in the complicated process of figuring out what these planets are made of.

“This is a quick and easy way to find out what a planet is made of and what its radius should be,” Miguel Lorenzo said. “It’s really cool because we could find a new Earth.”

The code Miguel Lorenzo created could help astronomers map other solar systems, and knowing what kinds of planets are out there helps astronomers answer the question Are we alone?

“How rare are we? Are we really the only people in the billions and billions of stars and planets that are out there?” Miguel Lorenzo asked.

Still other students are working doubly hard to spread the word about science.

Civil engineer Kenneth Magaña taught science to kindergarten through eighth grade students at an after school program at Southwest Elementary school in Phoenix. For two years, Southwest Elementary did not have a regular science teacher, and the eighth graders at the school had hardly any science knowledge at all, Magaña said.

The students at Southwest Elementary are asked to build things, design experiments and sometimes dissect animals. The end goal is to teach them the scientific method and engineering process, and to inspire them to want to pursue science in college, Magaña said.

“In the beginning, the students were stand-offish and messed around, but now they’re really interested,” he said. “They ask us to bring in specific things that they’re curious about, like magnets.”

Magaña’s work is, in part, emblematic of what Space Grant at ASU is trying to accomplish: to inspire future generations of scientists and engineers.

“These students may see themselves in (Magaña) in a way they wouldn’t see themselves in me,” Sharp said. “They see that he can go to ASU and he can be an engineering major. That’s huge.”

Written by Kristen Hwang