Space Grant group helps build scientific knowledge

2007-04-18T00:00:00Z Space Grant group helps build scientific knowledgeBy Valarie Potell Arizona daily star Arizona Daily Star
April 18, 2007 12:00 am  • 

An image from a brain scan may look like a gray mass to the untrained eye. But Joshua Lucio is able to detect the slightest change from image to image.

Lucio isn't a doctor, a professor or even a graduate student. He's a University of Arizona microbiology senior who's spent seven months looking at MRI scans taken before and after patients with brain diseases underwent radiation treatments.

Lucio's work is done through the Arizona Space Grant Consortium, which involves dozens of UA students and is led by Michael Drake, head of the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

The statewide program brings together the UA, Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and 23 affiliate members, said Barron Orr, associate director of UA's program. The UA is the lead institution for the state consortium, which receives nearly $600,000 from NASA each year to fund educational programs geared to provide people the opportunity to learn about science and engineering, Orr said.

Participating groups make significant contributions to support the consortium's programs. With the projected contributions for 2007, the state program's budget is more than $1.2 million, Susan Brew, manager for the state and UA programs, said in an e-mail.

"Statewide, the flagship program is a large undergraduate research-internship program that supports 141 undergrads in 2006," she wrote. "In addition, 14 graduate students at UA and ASU receive fellowship support to engage in research programs, and at UA, to design and implement an educational-outreach program related to their graduate work."

There are more than 60 UA undergraduate interns working on a variety of topics this year, including microwave spectroscopy, documenting vegetation change using photography and working in public affairs for the Phoenix Mars Mission lander project. The lander will launch in August and is scheduled to reach Mars in May 2008. There's even a spot for a science-writing intern at the Arizona Daily Star. Six graduate students spent the year developing and implementing scientific outreach projects.

The Arizona Space Grant Consortium was created in 1989, a year after Congress passed the National Space Grant Act. The national program now includes consortia in all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. Arizona has been ranked in the top category each time the program has been reviewed by the national program.

In addition to supporting science programs, Orr said, the program tries to expose historically underrepresented people to science, technology, engineering and math.

"The transfer of knowledge between the scientific community and the public is essential," he said.

Lucio's work may affect the public one day. He said the project he's working on is a new technique that could have wider ramifications.

Lucio is one of more than 830 undergraduate students who have gone through the intern program in its 18 years. Students apply based on their interests, and those who are selected are matched with a mentor to work on a specific project.

Lucio worked mainly with cells in previous internships but said this experience has been exciting because the project is very new.

"We as interns are put in the driver's seat," he said. "You might not know what you're getting into, but in the end you're doing something."

Take a look at three of the Space Grant program's projects

Six graduate students spent the year working on scientific education outreach projects via the UA Space Grant program.

Here's an overview of three of the projects.

Nick Rattray, anthropology

Some UA students and staffers got to look at the campus from a unique perspective this semester — a bird's-eye view.

Rattray's project is meant to survey what students with disabilities think of UA's accessibility and expose those students to math, science and technology because there aren't many disabled students in those areas.

Rattray, 31, began meeting with 10 students and UA staffers in January who volunteered to help with the project through the Disability Resource Center.

After six weeks of meetings, class members began interviewing students. They talked to two people with a disability and one person without about their observations around campus. The subjects then were asked to draw their daily routes, comment on places that were easily accessible for people with disabilities, and point out areas of campus that needed work.

"This forces them to read a map and think about campus in a different way and from a bird's-eye view," Rattray said.

Class participants also learned how to collect and analyze geospatial data using GPS and GIS software, exposing them to technology.

Rattray said the feedback from all 30 people interviewed will be compiled on one map to illustrate hot spots. He'll continue his work as a graduate fellow again next year and would like to see the work affect disability awareness on campus. Participants will present their findings to the Disability Resource Center staff and the public April 27.

Andy Shaner, education

Looking for a place to cool down when Tucson heats up? Ever dreamed of having more time in a day? Move to Mars.

The highest temperature recorded on Mars was 40 degrees, and one day on the fourth planet from the sun lasts 24 hours and 37 minutes, allowing lots of time for that power nap.

Shaner, 26, isn't trying to sell real estate on Mars; he's trying to educate elementary school students about Earth's neighboring planet. He created a 16-lesson program to teach third- and fourth-grade students about Mars, science and the use of robotics on the red planet.

Shaner developed the curriculum last year in his first year as a graduate fellow and spent this year getting the word out about it. He's also trying to get it approved by NASA to become part of its national portfolio of educational products.

More than 100 teachers have seen the curriculum at workshops across the country and the lessons are available on the Phoenix Mars Mission Web site, so Shaner said it's impossible to know how many kids have been exposed to the program.

This summer, staff members at two children's museums in Wichita, Kan., and New Orleans will be trained, too.

Most of the lessons take about an hour and can be used for almost any age level.

The goal of the most popular lesson, Mars Match Game, is to show students the similarities and differences between geographic features on Earth and Mars by using pictures.

"It was a fun activity to make, and the kids seem to like it," Shaner said. "Instead of showing them Mars on a PowerPoint, we show them these games and presentations."

Vuna Fa, immunobiology

That grease-fighting liquid dish soap sitting next to the kitchen sink also can be used to expose DNA — kiwi fruit DNA.

Several high school classes in Southern Arizona learned this lesson hands-on as part of an educational science-outreach program designed by Fa, 32.

The first lesson is an introduction to DNA, followed by the kiwi DNA extraction lab. The second lesson is about the uses of DNA once it's isolated from the nucleus. The third lesson covers disease, and the fourth focuses on gravity.

After a bad experience with science in high school, Fa started college as a business student. But he was exposed to the world of scientific research when his son was diagnosed with a prenatal heart condition. He changed his major to biochemistry, went to work for a landscape company and finally ended up as an immunobiology graduate student.

He developed the lessons this year for kids who struggle in a normal high school setting. He's taught lessons to students at the Coolidge Success Center and at Casa Grande's Desert Winds High School.

"I try to present it in a way that we didn't always know this stuff, it comes from curious people," Fa said. "I relate it to them that they're not far off from those people."

Fa would like to work with Tucson students and in middle schools. He'll have the chance to continue the program because he also was chosen to return as a graduate fellow next year.

— Valarie Potell

● Contact NASA Space Grant intern Valarie Potell at 573-4176 or at

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