Research done by TCNJ undergrads may slip the surly bonds of earth, as NASA plans to use the work as part of an effort to gauge the impact of long space flights on the health and performance of astronauts.
Anthony Lau, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, was awarded a $150,000 grant from the space agency to expand his research on the effects of radiation on bone health. Lau and his students are working with Catherine Davis-Takacs at Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland to determine the relationship between bone and cognitive changes from radiation exposure.
Lau’s proposal was one of eight selected from 66 applicants competing to investigate biological, physiological, and behavioral adaptations to spaceflight. Those research projects will “contribute to NASA’s long-term plans, which include crewed missions to the Moon and Mars,” the agency said. Lau was also named a principal investigator in NASA’s Human Research Program.
The broader impact of this research could lie in its down-to-earth applications, including in assessing the effects of radiation therapy on the bone health of cancer patients, Lau said.
As part of the two-year NASA grant, Lau and his students also will be collaborating with Gary Dickinson, associate professor of biology at TCNJ, on performing material property characterization of bone.
The idea for this research predated Lau’s arrival at TCNJ in 2015. “This was so many years in the making,” he says, adding that the grant will allow for an expanded analysis. Preliminary data seems to correlate bone hardness with better memory, he said.
Sophomore biomedical engineering major Sabrina Vander Wiele is working on computational modeling that will be used in the grant-funded research.
“Now, as a young and curious researcher, I have the amazing opportunity to study the micromechanics of bones with Dr. Lau and the help of a NASA grant,” she says.
Chiebuka Okpara, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering, says the lab work was a great opportunity to see the real-world applications of his learning as an undergraduate. Okpara was awarded a state Space Grant Consortium Fellowship for his micromechanical modeling of the bones exposed to radiation. He presented that work recently at the NASA Human Research Program Investigators Workshop, and plans to pursue research as a graduate student.
Research conducted by nine students over the past few semesters helped lay the groundwork for the preliminary studies that led to the NASA grant, Lau said. The grant money will allow for more students to participate in research and field experiences traveling to NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York and the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland.
— Patricia Alex