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AU Students Win Three Prizes at NASA STEM Competition

Winning projects developed to solve real-world problems

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Joseph Minnich, Joey Lamborn, and Monessha Jayabalan

If you had an opportunity to conduct NASA-sponsored STEM research that would contribute to solving real-world problems, what would you do?

Three American University undergraduate students had this exact opportunity at the recent NASA DC Space Grant Consortium (DCSGC) Student Research Competition – and in doing so, they took home some of the top awards.

Joseph Minnich (BS physics, computational track ’21) used low-cost air quality sensors to determine the effects of COVID on air quality. He received second place and a $500 award. Joey Lamborn (BA physics ’21) showed how machine learning could be used to map the US power grid. He tied for third place and a $300 award with Monessha Jayabalan (MS biotechnology ’20), who injected a heat-tolerant gene into a worm to learn more about how animals can survive extreme temperatures like those predicted from global warming.

The competition was sponsored by the NASA District of Columbia Space Grant Consortium, one of 52 members of a national network known as "Space Grant," which encompasses more than 1,200 universities and organizations in every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The Space Grant Program is administered by NASA. The DCSGC offers DC university students opportunities for internships, fellowships, and scholarships, as well as research opportunities.

It’s all part of NASA’s overarching mission to increase public knowledge, support educators, and attract and retain students to pursue STEM advanced degrees and careers. “For American University, which manages the consortium in the District of Columbia, it provides opportunities to students to have authentic research experiences while supporting NASA missions in science and space technology,” says Nathan Harshman, AU Professor of Physics and DCSGC Director. “One goal of the program is to broaden the pipeline of students prepared for joining the NASA workforce, and multiple AU students have followed that pipeline. The DCSGC also provides matching support to professional development activities at AU like the Summer Undergraduate and Graduate Research Experience, to outreach and education projects like the Optics Olympiad, and to other programs that build community and excitement around NASA missions.”

This year, students presented their research posters remotely by making videos and posting them on YouTube. “We are very proud and highly impressed at both the caliber and depth of research our Space Grant-supported students are conducting, and that an independent review panel selected three AU students for top placement,” says Eric Day, Program Manager of the NASA Space Grant Consortium. “One of our affiliate partners, The INSPIRE Project, was so impressed that they invited all 19 students who competed to submit their research for publication in The INSPIRE Journal, a scientific publication. This is an incredible opportunity for our students, as it is rare for undergrads to have their research published.”

People, Covid, and Pollution

For his project, Joseph Minnich (BS physics, computational track ’21) used crowdsourced PurpleAir sensors to examine the correlation between human mobility and air pollution. It was a perfect time to do so, as millions of Americans stayed home in quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Minnich says he first became interested in low-cost, highly accurate air quality sensors in 2019—an invention that has democratized the process of measuring air quality. In early 2020, he and Assistant Professor of Environmental Science Valentina Aquila planned a project to measure the efficacy of urban green areas in reducing pollution concentrations. They deployed 10 air quality sensors around the American University campus and began collecting data. But then the pandemic struck and there was no way for Minnich to monitor the sensors.

He began thinking about what he could do from home to continue the project. He decided to use the sensors to build statistical models to quantify the impact of reduced mobility on pollution. “Sitting at home, I became interested in what effects COVID has had on air quality,” he explains. “It became my goal to understand this relationship solely using free, open data available to me at home.”

Minnich says that receiving the award was humbling and motivating. “Seeing so many people interested in my research topic was a huge confirmation that I'm doing research that people care about,” he says.

Minnich says his ultimate plan is to eventually go to graduate school. But first, his post-graduation plans range from joining a startup or think tank, to doing industry or government research, to starting his own company. As he looks back at his time at AU, he is especially grateful for several faculty members. “My research mentor Valentina Aquila has kept me focused and motivated. I cannot thank her enough,” he says. “Oftentimes her confidence in me supersedes my own self-confidence. I'd also like to thank the AU physics department, especially Nate Harshman and Kristof Aldenderfer, for their advocacy and for helping me discover my passions.”

Watch Minnich’s presentation.

Protecting Power Grids from Solar Flares

Joey Lamborn’s (BA physics ’21) project started with an existing problem: Solar flares from the sun can severely damage power grids on Earth by producing geomagnetically induced currents. This can result in transformers blowing up, large-scale blackouts, and other serious consequences.

Lamborn realized that researchers do not have access to a map of the entire power grid to run simulations and better understand the effects of solar flares. So, with the help of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA DC Space Grant, he is using machine learning to map the US power grid. They will be training the machines to identify certain aspects of power grids in satellite imagery, drilling down details until the machines can identify them properly every time.

For Lamborn, who has been mentored at AU by Assistant Professor of Physics Silvina Guidoni, his topic was a fascinating intersection between physics and computer science, an opportunity to apply his physics education to solve a meaningful issue, and a chance to learn new things and expand his skill set. At the same time, he’s been able to take the research skills he learned and apply them to 17minds, a digital health company he established with two other AU students. 17minds focuses on improving autism care through software tools and data-driven solutions.

“Our founding team knew we wanted to make changes in the medical technology space, and due to personal experiences with family and friends, we decided to focus on autism care,” Lamborn says. “We came to realize that many parents experience the same frustration: communicating and collaborating with their child's care team. We saw an opportunity for technology to improve communication and ultimately improve quality of care, so we founded a company and got to work! Currently, we are putting finishing touches on the first version of the 17minds platform and continuing to build connections with the autism community.”

Lamborn adds that the opportunity to explore machine learning in his research has been extremely helpful in his role at 17minds, and he hopes that the experience gained through the DCSGC opportunity can ultimately revolutionize autism care.

Watch Lamborn’s project.

Preparing for Global Warming

For her project, Monessha Jayabalan (MS biotechnology ’20) worked with Associate Professor of Biology John Bracht. “With rising global temperatures, it has become increasingly important to study heat-tolerant animals because humans are not capable of withstanding exceedingly high temperatures,” Jayabalan says. “We wanted to look into how certain animals can survive extreme conditions to hopefully help humans in the future."

Jayabalan worked with H. mephisto, a worm that can survive high temperatures because it has a heat-tolerant gene (Hsp70). H. mephisto was recently discovered in a cave, about 1.3 kilometers underground in a completely isolated environment with low oxygen levels and extremely high temperatures. Jayabalan’s project centered on taking Hsp70 from H. mephisto and injecting them into another worm, called C. elegans, to see if she could produce heat tolerant worms. The ultimate goal, Jayabalan says, it to answer her research question of whether or not the C. elegan will actually produce heat-tolerant progeny.

Jayabalan says that receiving the award was very meaningful to her because it’s a reminder that the laboratory work she does every day is important. She was thrilled to develop the project and work in a genomics lab, expanding her molecular and microscopic skills and knowledge. Next, she hopes to do a post-bacc program at the National Institutes of Health and then continue her education in molecular neuroscience.

“My time in this lab has shown me that I enjoy the detail that goes into genomics work, and I hope to carry on that expertise wherever I go,” she says. “I would like to recognize my research mentor, Dr. John Bracht for being an amazing role model and support system throughout my time at AU.”

Watch Jayabalan’s project.