When I walked into the Bioastronautics High Bay in the Aerospace Engineering wing at CU Boulder, I could immediately tell that I was not in your standard academic lab. Directly in front of me was an 11-foot-tall, 10-foot-wide, towering silver structure that I later learned is nicknamed the “tin can.” Emily Matula, a Bioastronautics graduate student in the lab, informs me that this is a lunar habitat mockup meant to study different living configurations for astronauts.
“It’s definitely the most impressive and imposing part of the lab,” quipped Matula as she showed me around. Matula explains to me that this lunar habitat mockup is the work of approximately 20 graduate students. Each year, students work on similar large-scale projects, recruiting test subjects from around the University to give them feedback on what it’s like to complete different tasks that an astronaut might perform in that space (e.g. eating a meal or exercising.)
While Matula wasn’t a test subject for this experiment, she has given feedback on other astronautics experiments at NASA facilities all over the country. She’s done everything from testing out potential meals for astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) to, more recently, trying out a Hyper-G simulation (essentially a big, human centrifuge.)
“It was really sweet!” Matula says, regarding the Hyper-G simulation. “I got up to 6G’s, chest-in. It’s almost like if you’re taking off in a plane, how you feel that pressure in towards your chest.”
Except the force Matula experienced was almost 5 times greater than what we normally feel taking off on an airplane, which is roughly 0.75 to 1.25G.
“It was like an elephant sitting on every single part of you,” she continued. “They would have us try to do pushups in a sitting position… it was a struggle to get [my arms] all the way out, and they kind of fly back.”
Matula is a NASA Space Technology Research Fellow, which is a program started by NASA to sponsor graduate students. This means that, in addition to her thesis work here at CU Boulder, Matula spends at least 10-weeks a year doing research at various NASA facilities.
This past summer, Matula worked closely with scientists at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA.
“The scientists that I worked with were all microbiologist and exobiologists that look at extremophiles, like algae that lives in high salinity or high temperature environments,” Matula explained. “Typically, what happens is that I come in [to the NASA facility] with a couple of experiments in mind that I think would be really cool to do within that 10-week time frame.”
Matula then spends the rest of the summer working closely with one to two mentors who help her tailor her projects to fit the time constraints and the facility at which she’s working.
“For the most part, [the mentors] just let me do my experiments, which is really cool. Also, if they have anything going on that is interesting, a lot of times I’m able to help them or work with them,” Matula explains. “I learn a lot of lessons over the summer sessions that I can start applying to my research here [at CU.]”
While at CU, Matula’s studies air revitalization, which she describes as “taking the CO2 that we respire and trying to produce oxygen out of it that people can use while they’re on a spacecraft,” And since Matula works in Bioastronautics, this means designing air revitalization systems that utilize living organisms like algae.
Air revitalization technologies are already in practice, but adapting them for space requires a lot of careful design and optimization. Typically, algal air revitalization systems rely on sparging, or the process of bubbling CO2 into algal systems so that the CO2 can be easily accessed by the algae for conversion to O2 through photosynthesis. But this sparging process doesn’t happen in space.
“If you try to make bubbles in a microgravity setting, they just kind of expand and sit there. They don’t really do anything,” Matula explains. Instead, the bioregenerative community uses a special kind of membrane to “feed” the CO2 into the algae.
These membranes are made up of an extremely thin layer of silicone, “almost like the baking sheets that you can buy in a store, but thinner.” When silicone gets thin enough, it becomes gas permeable, allowing CO2 to travel across the barrier and react with the algae on the other side.
So, what does an average day look like for a bioastronautics researcher at CU? “Well, I probably don’t spend enough time reading,” jokes Matula. Certainly, a sentiment that most grad students can relate to. “I’ve got so many things going on in parallel that… while one experiment is running, I’m doing the data analysis for the previous experiment.”
Most experiments in the Bioastronautics High Bay use shared equipment, so Matula’s work varies more week-to-week than day-to-day. “This week is a very bench-heavy week,” she explains. “It’s probably going to be me from like 9-5 on the bench running experiments. The types of experiments I do are kind of like “hit-the-button-to-start” type experiments, then I go and check my email or sit somewhere else for 30 minutes before coming back to see what’s going on.”
When not running experiments, Matula spends her time encouraging the next generation of women scientists. “A personal passion of mine is volunteering in the stem community and making sure that women and minorities are well-represented and have the same opportunities [in science] that other people do,” Matula explains. “I may not be out every weekend hiking 14ers, but instead I’m helping give a face to STEM for young girls. Kind of like ‘If I can do it, you can, too!’”
Matula estimates that only 25-30% of people in the Bioastronautics program are women. “You know, I don’t really notice [the lack of women] until someone brings it up. There’s definitely a ways to go!” laughs Matula. “What I find reassuring, though, is that with our generation, it’s starting to become the norm for women to be in engineering. We just have to keep that trend going!”
By Gretchen Geibel