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Future space scientists train at Brookhaven Lab

A researcher adjusts a sample in the beamline target area at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven Lab.
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UPTON, NY -- As astronauts spend more time in space, scientists need to better understand the dangers space travelers face from deep-space radiation -- and how to best shield them against these risks. A new NASA Summer Student Program at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory will help provide a "pipeline" of researchers to tackle this challenge. The program is co-sponsored by Brookhaven Lab, Loma Linda University Medical Center, and Universities Space Research Association, a consortium of universities, research organizations, and governmental groups involved in space research.

This inaugural program, beginning June 1, 2004, will train 11 future space radiobiologists (participant list available). The group of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows will participate in an intensive three-week residential program at Brookhaven Lab's NASA Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL) and Medical Department. NSRL (http://www.bnl.gov/medical/NASA/LTSF.asp) is a unique scientific facility that simulates the harsh radiation environment of outer space.

"Astronauts spending any length of time in space are exposed to ionizing radiation, which can damage bodily organs and DNA," explained Marcelo E. Vazquez, a medical scientist at Brookhaven Lab who co-directs the NASA Summer Student Program with Gregory Nelson of Loma Linda University. Current spacecraft do not have sufficient shielding to protect from these dangerous rays on longer distance or long-term space journeys.

Medical researcher Marcelo Vazquez prepares a cell-culture sample for a radiation experiment at the NSRL.

Studies at NSRL focus on how this radiation can damage the central nervous system and other bodily systems -- as well as how the intense rays promote the development of cancer. NSRL researchers are also looking at ways to protect against these dangers -- through shielding and other strategies to minimize the risk to space travelers.

"Our aim with the Summer Student Program is to attract the highest quality students and young researchers from the fields of molecular biology and genetics, and provide a learning experience that will enable them to pursue productive careers in space radiobiology research," said Vazquez. "The course provides a physical and intellectual environment not duplicated in the nation's universities, medical schools, or research institutions." Vazquez serves as Brookhaven Lab's experimental liaison in the Medical Department for the NSRL research program and is also the new National Space Biomedical Research Institute/NASA Space Radiation Liaison.

The summer program brings together biological and physical scientists to work jointly on leading problems in space radiobiology. Students participate in both classroom activities and scientific experiments, working side-by-side with top space scientists from research organizations such as NASA, Brookhaven Lab, Loma Linda University, Johns Hopkins University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Columbia University. Experimental creativity and interdisciplinary approaches are emphasized.

"Biology-oriented students will complete the course able to understand fundamental principles in physics, the space radiation environment, and the use of particle accelerator beams -- a key tool in space biology research," says Vazquez. "And physics-oriented students will leave understanding the language of biology, with experience working on cutting-edge problems related to protection from radiation in space." Following completion of the program, participants will be qualified to perform experiments at NSRL.

NSRL is a $34 million facility that was built cooperatively at Brookhaven Lab by NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy. Operational since 2003, NSRL is one of the few places in the world that can simulate the harsh cosmic and solar radiation found in space. The lab employs beams of heavy ions extracted from Brookhaven's Booster accelerator -- the best in the U.S. for studying the effects of radiation on living organisms. Scientists from more than 20 research institutions from throughout the U.S. and abroad work year-round at the facility to learn about the possible risks to space explorers exposed to deep-space radiation.

For information on NASA Summer Student Program sponsors, please visit http://www.nasa.gov (NASA), http://www.usra.edu Universities Space Research Association), and http://www.llu.edu (Loma Linda University Medical Center).

One of the ten national laboratories overseen and primarily funded by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies and national security. Brookhaven Lab also builds and operates major scientific facilities available to university, industry and government researchers. Brookhaven is operated and managed for DOE's Office of Science by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited-liability company founded by Stony Brook University, the largest academic user of Laboratory facilities, and Battelle, a nonprofit, applied science and technology organization. Visit Brookhaven Lab's electronic newsroom for links, news archives, graphics, and more: http://www.bnl.gov/newsroom



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