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Faculty Research Mini-Grants 2017-2018

The NASA Nebraska Space Grant is excited to highlight our innovative faculty research projects this year.   Coming soon!  

Click here for 2016-2017 Faculty Research Mini-Grants.

Dr. Philip Lai, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication Disorders, University of Nebraska Kearney

Conveying Information through Verbal and Non-Verbal Channels of Communication after Completion of a Project.

Communication is critically important for success, especially when working in a team. A successful conversation requires the coordination of many abilities.  For example, one must plan, organize, integrate, and execute the message, all online and in real-time. As this process occurs, other verbal (i.e., verbal fillers, pauses, rephrases) and nonverbal channels (i.e., eye contact, gestures, facial expression) can convey crucial information such as one’s current affective state and current attentional focus. This study is interested in investigating verbal and nonverbal behaviors when individuals are completing tasks at different complexity levels. After completing a task, how do individuals convey this information to another person? This study will investigate multiple communicative behaviors, channel by channel, and how these channels co-occur during the interaction. 

Dr. Marc Albrecht, Assistant Professor, Department of Biology, University of Nebraska Kearney

Improving Plant Growth in Martian Soil By Particle and Soil Monitoring.

Growing crops on Mars may be very important for future explorers. Some crops are not amenable to hydroponic systems due to their need for space, root growth, or soil support. Our previous work with Martian soil simulant indicated that the addition of water to the material created a hard, solid aggregate that appeared to inhibit both water penetration and root growth. In this experiment Martian soil simulant was separated by particle size. Sorting the material by size may provide for much better plant growth.  The simulant soil was sorted by particle size class of: >0.71 mm, 0.71 - 0.50 mm, 0.50 - 0.25 mm, and < 0.25 mm. Initial observations indicate generally improved plant growth compared to unsorted material as well as differences between different particle sizes. This sorting treatment could readily be done by Martian astronauts, precluding the heavy lift and associated cost of transporting soil amendments to Mars for addition to the soil on the planet. 

Dr. Travis L. McCumber, Assistant Professor, Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Anatomy, University of Nebraska Medical Center

In Vitro Quantification and Validation of Mechanically-Induced Osteocyte Strain.

The Office of the Chief Technologist provides the strategy and coordination that guide NASA's technology and innovation activities, and includes a National Institute of Aerospace project known as NASA's iTech initiative. The iTech initiative is an effort to find innovative ideas that address challenges and fill gaps in critical areas identified by NASA as having a potential impact on future exploration. NASA has recently defined five critical areas that have potential impact on future exploration. Within these five critical areas, a great deal of importance has been placed on the effects of space flight on human health and performance. Despite strenuous exercise regimens, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) still lose up to 1% of their bone mass per month. Current crewmembers of the ISS and future astronauts embarking on long duration space voyages face an increased risk of bone fracture. It is well established that mechanical loading is required to maintain bone mass and strength, and that osteocytes act as the primary mechanosensory cell of the skeletal system. The fact that osteocytes are terminally derived and that they reside within a mineralized matrix makes the study of the most abundant cell in bone tissue very difficult. Osteocyte cell lines have been developed for the in vitro study of the osteocyte’s mechanosensory properties; however, the current models for applying mechanical stimuli do not allow for quantification and validation of osteocyte strain. The purpose of this project is to develop a loading apparatus for quantifying and validating in vitro osteocyte strain. The in vitro study of osteocytes with respect to mechanical forces is crucial for the promotion of health and wellness for current and future astronauts, and will allow for the establishment of in vitro loading methods that more accurately resemble the strains experienced by osteocytes in vivo.

Dr. Shudipto Dishari, Assistant Professor, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Ion Transport Under Confinement in Alkaline and Regenerative Fuel Cells for Space Shuttle Applications.

Fuel cell is one of the major components of power generation subsystems and a powerful energy conversion device for terrestrial and aerospace applications. Out of different types of fuel cells, the alkaline fuel cells (AFCs) and regenerative fuel cells (RFCs) are of particular interests of NASA due to their application suitability for robotic and crewed missions. According to the 2015 technology roadmap by the Office of Chief technologist, NASA’s overall performance and durability target for fuel cells are: to operate with high specific energy, high energy density and high energy efficiency. Achieving these targets is possible by improving ion transport across nanothin ion containing polymer (or ionomer) films (on catalyst surface) along with thick ionomer membranes used in fuel cells. Thin layers of ionomers often suffer from sluggish ion transport negatively impacting the redox reaction at electrodes and energy efficiency of fuel cells. While the ion conductivity across bulk ionomer membranes (several tens of microns thick) have been studied a lot, very little is known about hydration induced changes in ion transport properties of sub-micron thick ionomer films. The proposed work aims to measure the ion conductivity (proton for RFC and hydroxide ion for AFC) as well as identify the factors governing ion conduction in nanoscale systems so that proper design considerations can be set to develop congenial ion conduction environment in sub-micron thick ionomer films and improve fuel cell efficiency.

Dr. Ganesh Naik, Associate Professor of Chemistry, College of Saint Mary

Curricular and Co-Curricular activities to increase students’ enthusiasm in new Environmental Sustainability Minor

At College of Saint Mary (CSM), we developed a new 18-credit academic minor in Environmental Sustainability and it allows students from various majors to develop a broad understanding of sustainability, including how environmental concerns intersect with economic and social justice issues. The project is aimed to increase students understanding of Sustainability issues through activities such as classroom education, seminar lectures and sustainability awareness events, hands-on activity workshops, field trips, and community garden/composting projects. The activities taken under this project will help to build on NASA’s Global Climate Change Education initiative and enhance students’ understanding of global climate and Environmental Sustainability. The project will also help local elementary teachers as environmental education materials will be used in the CSM’s elementary science teachers outreach workshops.

Connie O'Brien, Director, Aim for the Stars , University of Nebraska at Omaha

When Numbers Talk Louder than Words

According the U.S. Census Bureau (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2017), the population of under 18-aged Black American children is 5 percent of the greater Omaha area’s population.  The 2.9 percent Black Americans represented at AFTS 2017 do not adequately reflect this demographic.  The goal of this grant is to promote Aim for the Stars Science and Math camps to that underserved population.  We expect to assimilate these participants into regular camp parameters within two to three summers, as the families become familiar and comfortable with AFTS.  This should result in a steadily growing population making our goal of being “a camp for every kid” more accurate and equitable. 

Dr. Kathryn Cooper, Assistant Professor, School of Interdisciplinary Informatics , University of Nebraska at Omaha

A Rank-Based Temporal Network Approach to Mine Genes Exhibiting Significant Expression Variations

This project uses network modeling to identify patterns and anomalies in longitudinal data. For example, airport transportation data is collected daily for all domestic airports in the United States. From this data we are able to describe a graphical network, where airports are “nodes” and the edges connecting these nodes are described by passenger count, flight distance, freight, or mail weight, to name a few as an example. In this project, we propose a rank-based system for identifying time-based anomalies and patterns in networks where nodes are ranked and analyzed for change over time. By applying anomaly detection algorithms to the ranks of each node per network over time, we can identify what days airports may have experienced delays or total shutdowns due to an external event, such as a blizzard. This approach can be applied to any other longitudinal dataset that can be reliably represented as a network. Dr. Cooper and her colleagues have other ongoing projects that are investigating standards for reliable and robust network creation. 

Dr. Byrav Ramamurthy, Professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

DTN Network Management for Cis-Lunar Space

Our colleagues at JPL expressed concern about the behavior of Licklider Transmission Protocol (LTP) under conditions of heavy loss. It is generally assumed that signal loss and distortion will be handled in the physical layer through modulation and encoding schemes. However, this does not hold true in all circumstances, such as partial cloud cover in optical communication. In order to ensure the reliability of LTP and the networks that are built on top of it we are formally verifying LTP with SPIN. If LTP passes formal verification, then no further modifications are needed. If LTP fails formal verification then a fix must be proposed.

Dr. Craig Zuhlke, Assistant Professor, Electical and Computer Engineering, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Atomic Layer Deposition of Silver on Metal Surfaces Functionalized using Femtosecond Laser Surface Processing

This project aligns with NASA’s Human Exploration & Operations (HEO) directorate. NASA is currently working to develop the next generation of condensing heat exchangers (CHX) for use in the International Space Station (ISS) and in vessels being designed for deep space travel. The CHX is essential to cooling cabin air and removing humidity to ensure that the astronaut’s cabin environment is maintained at a comfortable level. Also, NASA considers the CHX as a critical function of closed-loop life support due to its inherent ability to reclaim water within the space vessel, which is desired by NASA for the ISS and will be essential for deep space travel. The current technology used in the CHX’s on the ISS relies on coatings that slough-off with time and require the CHX to be returned to Earth for repair. This is even a more critical issue as NASA is designing space craft for future deep space travel as it will not be possible to send or receive supplies from Earth. Dr. Zuhlke and Prof. Alexander at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) are currently working on a project funded by NASA Johnson Space Center, where femtosecond laser surface processing (FLSP) is used to functionalize metallic surfaces to produce permanently superhydrophilic or superhydrophobic, antimicrobial surfaces to be used in the next generation of CHX’s. There have been major successes with the program on developing antimicrobial silver surfaces functionalized using FLSP. However, because of the weight and high cost of silver it is not the ideal choice for the CHX material. Silver is 30% heavier and is significantly more expensive than stainless steel (SS). In a joint research effort with Profs. Mathias and Eva Schubert at UNL, atomic layer deposition (ALD) is being used to deposit a conformal layer of silver onto SS 304 surfaces that have been functionalized using FLSP. The ability to conformally deposit silver onto SS 304 that has been functionalized using FLSP will make the FLSP technique a more viable option for functionalizing surfaces for use in the CHX’s onboard the ISS and in vessels used for deep space travel.

Dr. Philippe Malcolm, Assistant Professor, Department of Biomechanics, University of Nebraska at Omaha

Influence of foot-ground traction on gaits used in reduced gravity

Reports and videos from the Apollo missions show that astronauts spontaneously adopted a skipping gait on the Moon. Simulations confirm that skipping is optimal for locomotion in reduced gravity. However, it has also been suggested that the preferred gait on the moon is skipping because the lunar dust surface (regolith) offers less traction. To test this hypothesis, researchers at the Department of Biomechanics and Center for Research in Human Movement Variability at University of Nebraska at Omaha will investigate the influence of foot-ground traction on the biomechanics of different gaits. To measure the effects of foot-ground traction on the metabolic cost of steady state locomotion, they will use footwear with low-friction Teflon outsoles. We anticipate this research will help to inform aspects, such as optimal footwear design and kinematic strategies, to cope with slippery terrain.

Dr. Jorge Zuniga, Assistant Professor, Department of Biomechanics, University of Nebraska at Omaha

Improvements of an Electronically-Powered 3D Printed Arm Prosthesis

Up to 52% of Veterans with upper-limb loss rejected or abandoned their prosthesis. Furthermore, many Veterans with upper-limb amputations are not even fitted with a functional prosthesis due to the lack of interest, high complexity of current prostheses, and lack of familiarization with these types of devices. Training in the use of the prosthesis is an often overlooked, but major determinant in outcome success.


The objective of this proposal is to improved our current 3D-printed upper-limb transitional prostheses to assist with the familiarization of Veterans and military personnel with trans-radial amputations to the use of electronically-powered prostheses.


We have developed proof-of-concept prototypes of the body-powered and electronically-powered 3D printed arm prostheses. The improvements of our electronically-powered arm prosthesis prototype include a wireless electromyographic control mechanism connected via Bluetooth (Myo Gesture Control Armband, Thalmic Labs Inc, Ontario, Canada).

Dr. Jack Gabel, Associate Professor, Department of Physics, Creighton University

Harnessing the Power of the Sun: Science Education and Outreach Activities to Celebrate the Great American Solar Eclipse

Funding from this project supported our science outreach event to view and celebrate the Great American Solar Eclipse that swept across the United States on August 21, 2017. Faculty and students in Creighton’s physics department designed and shared hands-on science demonstrations and activities with students from ten urban Catholic Omaha middle schools. Over 700 students participated in the event and were treated to a spectacular view of totality on the farm near Tecumseh, Nebraska.  We also presented two public lectures attended by over 500 people and three outreach talks at local middle schools leading up to the eclipse event.

Dr. Maya M. Khanna, Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Psychology, Creighton University

The Effect of Moderate-to-High Intensity Exercise on Cognitive Function

In the current study, we examine the impact of a brief period of cardiovascular exertion (e.g., 30 minutes of moderate cycling) results in an increase in cognitive performance. To do this, we ask participants to complete a series of cognitive measures (e.g., measures of vocabulary, attention, inhibition, and verbal processing) before completing a bout of moderate exertion on a cycle ergometer. During exercise, we also ask participants to complete a measure of verbal processing. Finally, after completing exercise, we ask participants to complete measures of attention, inhibition, and a third measure of verbal processing. We compare the participants’ performance on the measures of attention and inhibition before and after exercise to see if they exhibit any difference in executive function performance. For verbal processing, we are able to see how exercise can influence lexical access across the entire exercise experience. Previous research has indicated that 30 minutes of moderate exercise will result in increases in executive function skill such as attention and inhibition (e.g., Chang, Labban, Gapin, and Etnier, Brain Res, 2012) for a brief period of time after exercise. However, little previous research has examined the impact of exercise on language processing or verbal tasks. In addition, research on individuals who experience deficits in executive functions such as attentional control and inhibition (e.g., individuals with Dementia of the Alzheimer’s type, DAT) have related deficits in verbal fluency and other language processing skills. Thus, we would like to know if a short-term increase in executive function abilities will bring about a brief boost in verbal fluency and language processing skills.

Dr. Janelle Beadle, Assistant Professor of Gerentology, University of Nebraska at Omaha

Impact of Empathy on NASA Mission Performance

Her research project is aligned with the NASA Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. Astronauts’ experience of the space environment can be stressful and lonely at times. Therefore, positive social interactions with crew members and mission control may help to improve their well-being and in turn help facilitate mission success. Furthermore, the effectiveness of astronauts’ communication with mission control is also an important factor in improving mission success. People with greater levels of empathy tend to communicate in ways that help facilitate higher quality social relationships. Consequently, the focus of her project is to better understand how the empathy of NASA crew members and mission control can impact space communication and mission success. As a first step towards addressing this question, research studies will be conducted that measure how empathy affects communication, performance, and stress responses (measured through hormones) in a series of tasks relevant to NASA space missions in a sample of adults at UNO. Future research may involve examining this question in a simulated space environment.

Dr. Kota Takahashi and Dr. Amelia Lanier, Department of Biomechanics, University of Nebraska at Omaha

Biomechanics for engaging students in STEM

The goal of this project is to redesign a class in the Biomechanics curriculum with the goal to inspire and motivate students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Biomechanics integrates various concepts from physics, engineering, and biology to study the human body and can be enhanced through the use of technology. The redesigned course will emphasize hands-on computer-based training to facilitate active learning. Undergraduate students who complete our redesigned course in Biomechanics will be better equipped for future career opportunities in industry and academia. Additionally, we will develop biomechanics teaching modules for elementary aged students (K-6). These modules will be used in various community outreach projects aimed for teachers to draw from biomechanics as a vehicle to teach science, math, and engineering principles. Biomechanics offers a unique platform to improve STEM engagement as it includes all areas of STEM and allows students to become the subject of the classroom exercises. Cultivating interest and confidence in STEM fields at a young age will help in generating a pipeline for young students to pursue higher education and careers in STEM related fields as they grow and learn.

Mr. Bill Loring and Dr. Bill Spurgeon, Department of Information Technology, Western Nebraska Community College

Microcontrollers for Educators

Bill Loring and Bill Spurgeon from Western Nebraska Community College attended a week long training at Sparkfun Electronics, MicroControllers for Educators July 17 – July 21 2017. This five-day class was designed to give teachers and educators (middle school through higher ed) a foundation in electronics, programming, computer science and “Making” for their classrooms. They introduced the basics of circuits, electricity, engineering and computing using Arduino. The course focused on both the technical aspects as well as the pedagogy, activities, pacing and strategies for implementing a project-based STEM classroom. They participated in a Hack-A-Thon team which won first place with an “Intelligent” coaster.

The training they received will be used to:

  • Improve the support and mentoring for NASA fellowship projects

  • Improve programming assignments for Intro to Robotics

  • Vary the projects for Intro to Engineering

Dr. George Gogos, Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Experimental Study of Secondary Pool Boiling Effects

Heat transfer plays a vital role in all space exploration aspects. Due to the vacuum nature of space, it is very difficult to dissipate heat. Thus, heat generation from vital components must be very limited due to inefficiencies in transferring or dissipating that energy. Liquid cooling is a very popular method for heat removal and transfer used in many NASA systems. This project will study a new phenomenon, coined “Secondary Boiling Effects,” seen in pool boiling of water on specialized heat transfer surfaces. These specialized surfaces exhibit both micro- and nanoscale features and are obtained using femtosecond laser direct writing on metallic substrates. The self-ordered complexity of these surfaces is beneficial for exploiting the mechanisms associated with pool boiling. This manifests itself in the observed heat transfer performance which shows a smaller-than-normal operating temperature for a given heat flux. The degree of secondary boiling effects is highly dependent on the base material thermal conductivity, micro- and nanostructure, and size of available nucleation sites. This research could significantly impact the various heat transfer and storage components used for space exploration. Because, heat transfer is such a vital aspect in component design, any way to increase efficiency will result in a lighter, more compact, and potentially cheaper component.

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