Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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Contact: Laura Niles
NASA/Johnson Space Center

Student scientists receive unexpected results from research in space

YouTube is a great place to find blooper, snuggly kitten or music videos. Now, it's also a place to post grand ideas for microgravity research studies. Two of those ideas actually got to fly to the International Space Station. The YouTube Space Lab competition provided just such an opportunity, and three students saw their research performed aboard the orbiting laboratory.

For then-high school students Dorothy Chen and Sara Ma of Troy, Mich. and Amr Mohamed of Alexandria, Egypt, the sky no longer is the limit for their research questions. Chen, Ma and Mohamed completed research investigations as winners of the YouTube Space Lab global contest. The competition invited 14- to 18-year-old students to submit two-minute videos via YouTube to propose physics or biology investigations for astronauts to perform aboard the space station. Their research was chosen out of more than 2,000 entries received from around the world.

The two winning studies looked at the anti-fungal properties of the bacteria Bacillus subtilis (B. subtilis) in microgravity, and the predatory behavior of Salticus scenicus and Phiddipus johnsoni, also known as a zebra jumping spider and a red-backed jumping spider, respectively. The results they received from their research informed them that microgravity can be a wily participant in a research study held aboard an orbiting laboratory in space.

In a live video stream with the space station, Chen, Ma, Mohamed and NASA astronaut Sunita Williams were interviewed by Bill Nye the Science Guy about the two investigations. "To see it working is just mind-blowing," said Chen, after talking with Williams on the station about her project. "It's weird," remarked Ma, "it's like we saw the prototype for our bacteria container, and now [Williams] is holding it. It's just really surreal."

Chen and Ma hypothesized that B. subtilis, a naturally occurring bacteria commonly used as an anti-fungal agent for agricultural crops, would have increased anti-fungal properties when grown in microgravity compared to the same bacteria produced on Earth. Their testing also added phosphates and nitrates to the B. subtilis nutrient source to see if the additives affected growth and anti-fungal strength. The phosphates and nitrates acted as nutrients to potentially boost growth of the bacteria. The outcome of their investigation aboard the space station showed that the least amount of growth in the bacteria occurred in microgravity as compared to bacteria produced on Earth. They found that microgravity had no effect on the degree to which phosphates and nitrates affect B. subtilis growth.

In reaction to the results of her study with Ma, Chen said, "It was a little difficult to make hypotheses about the reason for the results since we never directly interacted with our experiment, but we think it may have to do with the specific strain of B. subtilis that we used." For additional study, "I would want to include a control strain," added Chen.

When asked how the experience of having her research conducted aboard the space station impacted her career goals, Chen said, "It has made me much more curious about the possibilities of research aboard the space station or in microgravity in general."

Mohamed, now a college student in California, was excited about seeing his zebra jumping spider research in action while talking with Williams in orbit. "The best scientists and astronauts are the ones who work on the station, and it's an honor to have my own experiment be done there."

Mohamed's research hypothesized that jumping spiders, like the zebra and red-backed species, would not be able to adapt their hunting abilities to microgravity. Jumping spiders do not build webs for catching their food, instead using their vision to hunt prey, jumping and striking with a fatal bite. This hypothesis was proven wrong while the investigation was conducted aboard the space station, as the spiders did adapt to microgravity to catch prey. "The results did indeed contradict my hypothesis, which was very exciting," exclaimed Mohamed. "I think it is boring when experiments turn out as expected or when the universe behaves as observed."

"This competition was by far the best experience of my life. It is something that will stay with me forever," says Mohamed, when asked how the experience of having his research conducted aboard the space station impacted his career goals. "I am currently studying engineering at my [college] in California. I am involved with the Student Space Flight Initiative. I really want space exploration to be a part of my future."

In appreciation of the YouTube Space Lab Project, NASA, the American Astronautical Society and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space recognized Zahaan Bharmal of Google for the project as a Top Education Application on the International Space Station in 2012. Bharmal acknowledged the importance of YouTube Space Lab and other space education programs as a key motivator for students to pursue careers in research and engineering and, in turn, further human space exploration. "The first man or woman to one day walk on Mars is, today, a child," said Bharmal. "YouTube Space Lab—and programs like it—are so very important to those on Earth because they are helping to inspire this next generation of explorers who may one day find a new home beyond Earth."