Science experiment sent to space teaches East Lyme students about exploring ideas

East Lyme — When a group of students from East Lyme Middle School began exploring an idea for a science experiment a year and half a ago, they weren't sure how far it would go.

The students researched their topic and ran pilot studies, designing an experiment that was selected as the one from their school to be sent to the International Space Station.

Now, the experiment has been to space and back — and they said it proved their original scientific hypothesis. The experience also taught them to explore their ideas.

"If you think of a good idea, you should pursue it," said Ethan Novick, one of the students.

The experiment, designed by Ritisha Ande, Maddie Fraser, Ethan Moore and Novick, now seventh-grade students at East Lyme Middle School, tested whether a bacteria would form more of a biofilm on catheters in gravity or on earth, an experiment that could apply to the health of astronauts.

East Lyme Middle School was participating in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. The program "is enabled through a strategic partnership with DreamUp PBC and NanoRacks LLC, which are working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory," according to the program description.

After several launch delays, the students, along with their teacher, mentor, and families, traveled to Cape Canaveral, Fla., in February to see the rocket carrying their experiment launch into space. While there, they learned the rocket launch would be delayed for another day.

But with the delay, some students had time to go on a private tour, getting about a half mile from the launch pad.

“It was really cool,” said Ethan Moore.

The next day the students finally witnessed the launch of the rocket with their experiment on it.

While the experiment was in space, the students conducted an identical experiment on earth, so the only difference between the two experiments was microgravity.

Staphylococcus epidermidis alone is commonly found on a person, but in certain situations, the bacteria can form a biofilm on catheters and medical devices that results in potentially deadly infections or problems, said East Lyme Middle School science teacher Deborah Galasso.

The students analyzed how much bacteria grew and the percentage of bacteria on the catheter under both conditions. The experiment indicated that less of a biofilm grew on the catheter in space, than on earth.

"We could hypothesize that it might not be as dangerous to have a catheter inserted in space as on Earth possibly due to the lack of gravity," she said, adding that additional trials would have to be conducted to be scientifically accurate.

"The research that the students performed adds additional insight to the effects of microgravity on the bacteria growth, as well as the formation of biofilm on catheters," Galasso said.

This field of research could assist with developing novel strategies for the prevention and treatment of biofilm-related infections or problems, both in space and earth, she said.

Some professional experiments that tested other questions with the same bacteria were also on the same rocket.

With their experiment back on earth, the students are already thinking about future experiments that NASA could conduct.

Fraser said that while they did one experiment, there are so many more that could be done.

“It’s like a giant tree that keeps growing," she said.

The students will present their results in June at a symposium in Washington, D.C.

"What I learned from the whole experiment is you should always be patient," said Ande, adding that it might take more than one try to get something.

"I admire their ability to stick with it for so long," Galasso said about the students. "They’ve been such good kids with such good families. It’s been inspiring for me to see how dedicated they’ve been to it."

Their mentor, Dr. Carrie Northcott, a scientist at Pfizer, who also traveled to see the launch with her son, also named Ethan, said it's not only the students that got to experience the project, but also now the community, as community members were eager to learn about the results.

Northcott said the space program opens the students' eyes to new possibilities.

"It allows them to dream and allows them to ask questions and realize there is more out there than just the classroom and the books," she said. They're applying their knowledge. I don’t think any of them in 20 years will tell you this didn’t have an impact on them."

k.drelich@theday.com

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