Space life sciences training program receives five-year, $1 million funding renewal

Doctoral candidate program includes ‘down to Earth’ space-science applications

COLLEGE STATION – The National Space Biomedical Research Institute has renewed its support for the graduate training program in space life sciences led by the Texas A&M University System’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in College Station, according to a program administrator.  The program is conducted in partnership with the Texas A&M colleges of education and engineering, and the Health Science Center.

The program will receive $1 million in funding over the next five years – from July 2012 through June 2017, said Dr. Nancy Turner, a nutritional physiologist with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who conducts space-related research.

“The funding is a renewal and extension of previous project funding, which had been in place for the past six years for the purpose of training Ph.D. candidates interested in space life sciences,” Turner said.

The space life sciences training program at Texas A&M University System’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (COALS) emphasizes “earthbound applications” of science related to space travel. (Photo courtesy of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences)

She said the funding allows for the selection of two new program fellows annually who receive two years of financial support.

“This program is also one of the university’s certificate programs, with participants earning a space life sciences certificate upon completion,” Turner said. “The certificate is noted on the student’s transcript while obtaining a doctoral degree at Texas A&M University in biomedical engineering, genetics, kinesiology, nuclear engineering (health physics), or nutrition — or an M.D./Ph.D. in medical sciences from the university’s Health Sciences Center Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.”

She said the goal of the training program is to develop a cadre of scientists capable of helping solve the most critical problems limiting long-duration spaceflight, and to apply space life science toward improving life on Earth.

“Some of the critical problems associated with extended spaceflight include bone loss, muscle wasting, the health effects of cosmic radiation and changes in metabolism,” she said.

Turner said over the years the program has expanded from the areas of kinesiology, nuclear engineering and nutrition to include the disciplines of biomedical engineering, genetics and medical sciences.

“Students also receive training in either nutritional and/or exercise physiology as a means to address biological issues associated with extended space travel,” she said. “So far, we have had 11 trainees in the program. One of the graduates from the program is in the process of doing a post-doctoral project with NASA and another is working with the Uniform Services University in Bethesda on their Radiation Combined Injury Program.”

Turner said many applying for the the training program are space enthusiasts, some with previous experience such as attending a space camp or involvement in activities or opportunities within NASA, like being a project intern.

“In the training, we focus on space-related science outcomes that will have practical implementation and application here on Earth,” Turner said. “Students who complete this training will have a solid background in research, teaching and service in order to support a successful career in academia, with NASA or with public or private industries or organizations associated with or involved in space exploration.”

Areas of academic interest in the space life sciences program include kinesiology, nuclear engineering, nutrition,  biomedical engineering, genetics and medical sciences. (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences)

She said one example of space-related science with an Earth application is in the development of technologies to provide health care in remote areas.

“While such an effort may be intended for delivering health care to astronauts making a long trip to Mars, it also has practical application for rural areas of Texas and elsewhere on this planet where people are home-bound or have limited access to a health-care provider.”

Kevin Shimkus, who entered the program in the fall of 2009 and expects to complete it next year, said he was given new opportunities for learning in the field of physiology.

“As an athlete, I was interested in muscle physiology, how muscle operates and the effects of atrophy and exercise on muscle mass,” Shimkus said. “As part of the health and kinesiology portion of the space life sciences program, I’ve been working on research related to both muscle physiology and the effects of radiation on the muscular and skeletal systems during extended space travel.”

He said the research on radiation with which he is involved is studying the effects of partial gravity on the responses to space radiation, as well as the degree of cellular damage caused by highly charged space particles, especially by harmful iron isotopes. The research relating to muscle physiology relates to atrophy and muscle loss and how this loss might be reduced or reversed.

Shimkus said this research has “application to Earth-bound problems relating to human health.”

“Everyone has muscle and the effects of long-term space travel on muscle are similar to what we see in older people and people with diseases that affect muscle tissue,” he said. “Our ability to find ways to maintain or restore muscle or at least slow down or reduce muscle loss is widely applicable here on Earth. As for the radiation research, this will give us further insights into the effects of X-ray exposure and exposure to other radiation on things like bone density and quality.”

Shimkus said he also worked two summers at the Johnson Space Center as an intern assisting with research projects.

“It was great experience,” he said. “I got to work with flight surgeons and biomedical engineers and talk to astronauts who personally had experienced the physiological effects of space travel. I also got to work on a research project studying the effects of weightlessness on muscle stem cells.”

The space life sciences training program includes working on research projects. Some current program research  relates to the effects of  cosmic radiation on bone quality, and  muscle loss and changes in metabolism during extended space travel.  (Photo courtesy College of Agriculture and Life Sciences)

Turner said as part of the space life sciences training program, candidates like Shimkus participate in special summer rotations at space-oriented facilities, defend a dissertation related to space life sciences, take four courses in the field of space life sciences and participate in educational outreach activities.

“This training dovetails with the mission of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute,” she said.

That mission, according to institute materials, is to lead “a national effort to conduct the integrated, critical path, biomedical research necessary to support long-term human presence, development and exploration of space” and to enhance life on Earth through resulting advances in human knowledge and technology.

There is a space life sciences component of NASA housed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Turner noted.

“If Texas is successful in getting a private company to build a launch site in the state, it will help support the corporate goal of privatizing spaceflight and making it safe for private citizens as well as astronauts,” Turner said. “Those involved in our space life sciences training program are also working toward the same goal of making spaceflight safer, as well as adapting space science to improve the lives of those on Earth.”

For more information on the relevance of space life sciences research, go to http://www.nsbri.org. For more information on the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences space life sciences doctoral training program, go to http://SLSGraduateProgram.tamu.edu or contact program coordinator Chelsea Bishop at 979-845-0850 or CLBishop@tamu.edu.

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