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Faculty Researchers 2021-2022

The NASA Nebraska Space Grant is excited to highlight our innovative faculty research projects this year. For 2020-2021 projects, click here.

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Rebecca Lai
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Department of Chemistry

UNL Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physical Sciences (WoPhyS)

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is bringing together outstanding student researchers for the 2021 Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physical Sciences, to be held on the UNL campus Thursday, October 21 through Saturday, October 23, 2021. Undergraduate students in all physical science disciplines are invited to take part in this unique opportunity to expand upon their current research experiences. Keynote talks will feature scientists who are leaders in their fields, highlighting progress in materials science and related fields. Participants will be able to
present their research results to their peers during invited talks and poster sessions. Social activities and special sessions will provide time to share experiences with other students, to obtain advice about pursuing careers in the physical sciences, and to visit laboratories on campus.


Eric Markvicka
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Department of Mechanical & Materials Engineering

Robotic Arm Kit for Active Learning

Robotic arms have had a long history in space. The Canadarm was the first robotic arm to be launched into space on the Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-2) on November 13, 1981. The primary use of the Canadarm was to assemble the international space station. Over the next 40 years, there have been several new robotic arms launched into space including Canadarm2, Dextre, and Robonaut. As part of this proposed project, I will enhance an existing undergraduate/graduate level course at UNL, MECH 453/853- Robotics: Kinematics and Design, to include examples of robotic arms that have been launched into space. In addition, an experiential, active learning experience in the form of a low-cost, physical robotic arm will be co-created with the students. The robotic arm kit will replicate the first four degrees of freedom of the Canadarm and consist of 1) four high torque servos, 2) microcontroller and servo driver, and 3) laser cut acrylic robotic links.

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Deepak Khazanchi
University of Nebraska at Omaha, College of Information Science and Technology

CodeCrush Immersion Experience

CodeCrush is a series of events designed to help close the gender gap in technology. What started as a once-a-year, four-day experience has grown to multiple events held three times a year in an effort to be fully inclusive of the Midwest’s diverse population. Focusing on 8th & 9th grade girls, our research has indicated that it is necessary to begin early to address the challenges associated with women entering STEM. Our CodeCrush Immersion Experience brings the girls to the campus of the University of Nebraska at Omah College of IS&T. This immersion experience runs over three days & nights. The program includes educational workshops, cultural activities, corporate visits and funding for scholarships to attend a future program at UNO. CodeCrush has grown to be the largest iSTEM experience for girls and their teachers in the Midwest. CodeCrush is a product of IS&T’s Women in IT Initiative, a community-run task force built to increase the number of women entering the IT workforce.

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Derrick Nero
University of Nebraska at Omaha, Department Teacher Education

Project HALON (High-Altitude Learning Over Nebraska)

The United States has identified the need to recruit, retain, and graduate enough undergraduates in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) majors to meet the needs of a growing STEM workforce due to attrition from retirements, production and manufacturing shifting to technology-based skill sets, and an ever-growing range of STEM fields. Therefore, the challenge of preparing and supporting enough secondary school students and their educators in STEM fields is vital. Project HALON (High Altitude Learning Over Nebraska) seeks to address this need through a unique, interdisciplinary experiential learning opportunity for secondary students that focuses on the design, development, integration, testing, and execution of near-space experiments (NSEs) using high-altitude ballooning (HAB) platforms utilizing various commercially-off-the-shelf technologies and conventional scientific staging.

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Travis McCumber
University of Nebraska Medical Center, Genetics, Cell Biology, and Anatomy

IThe Effect of Femoral Neck Geometry on Bone Microstructure

Astronauts can lose up to 1% of their bone density per month due to “unloading” of bone in zero gravity. It is well established that mechanical loading is required to maintain bone mass and strength. Femoral neck geometry (FNG) has been shown to effect femoral torsion and predict the location of proximal femoral stress fractures. Femoral microstrain analysis and cortical and trabecular bone mapping estimates have been previously reported; however, the effect of FNG on bone microstructure has yet to be described. This study will utilize micro-computed tomography for a unique analyze of proximal cadaveric femurs with wide spectrum FNG. The purpose of this study is to expand the fields understanding of femoral bone microstructure, the implications of FNG, and to advance clinical diagnostic criteria. This study aligns with NASA initiatives that address changes in gravity fields, which are experienced during space exploration, and the impact of this change on skeletal health and wellness.


Eric Markvicka
University of Nebraska-Lincoln,  Department of Mechanical & Materials Engineering

Materials with Programmable Microstructure

Lightweight, multifunctional composites have played a vital role in the advancement of the aerospace industry. New composite materials will be needed to meet the ever-increasing demands of in-space thermal management systems. Due to the vacuum environment in space, conduction is the primary method for heat transfer for internal spacecraft components. However, current limitations of existing composites include tradeoffs between thermal conductivity and stiffness, high mass density, risk of component failure, and lack of material programmability. To overcome these limitations, we are developing a new thermally conductive elastomer with programmable microstructure to enable a unique combination of properties including high thermal and high elasticity. The new material architecture has the potential to fulfill a variety of thermal management needs throughout the aerospace industry


Craig Zulhke
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of ECE

Creating cryophilic surfaces for fuel tanks using femtosecond laser surface processing

As NASA missions grow in length and distance, propellant management in micro-gravity becomes more and more important. There are several types of propellants that will be used in low-gravity conditions; but cryogenic liquid propellents are some of the most difficult to manage. Once gravity and artificial gravity (rocket thrust) are removed, then surface tension forces dominate the behavior of fluids in space inside of a storage tank. By selectively making portions of the inside surface of a spacecraft propellant tank cryophobic and portions cryophilic, where the liquid tends to collect can be controlled without the need for a liquid acquisition device (LAD), or propellant management device (PMD). This concept could lead to significant mass savings in both propellant tank structure and cryogenic boil-off. The proposed project will investigate the use of femtosecond laser surface processing to create cryophilic surfaces.

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Benjamin Brandsen
Creighton University
Development of Biosensors for Synthetic Biology Applications in Space

Engineered microorganisms promise to play an integral role in deep space exploration by enabling production of food, medicine, and materials in space. These microorganisms, however, will be forced to grow under very different conditions than they do on earth, potentially limiting the production of these resources. Genetically encoded biosensors are one emerging technology that can greatly facilitate engineering of microorganisms to produce valuable chemical products. By coupling production of a certain chemical to the growth of a microorganism, biosensors enable large-scale mutagenesis and selection for microbes that maximize production of that chemical. In this project, a Creighton undergraduate student will evolve biosensors based on an allosteric transcriptional regulator for two chemical products, providing key synthetic biology devices for and a high-impact research experience for an undergraduate scientist.

Amanda Roe

Amanda Roe
College of Saint Mary, Department of Biology

Elementary Educator Science Enrichment Workshop Series

The overriding goal of the workshop series is to stimulate interest in STEM by increasing the number of activity and inquiry-based learning experiences children receive during primary education. This program will provide face to face workshops for elementary teachers of STEM, and will build on community-requested educator professional development. Overall, our workshops will provide teachers with authentic STEM experiences which will enable them to increase and improve STEM experiences in their classrooms while allowing the teachers to earn higher education credit. Each of these goals and projected outcomes directly supports the NASA Education Implementation Plan, 2015-2017 (Electronically Enhanced Edition, January 2016).

Carl Nelson

Carl Nelson
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Department of Mechanical & Materials Engineering

Micro-g NExT UNL Team 2021-22

This project involves a student team performing research and development of a tool supporting the Artemis lunar missions for NASA. The project will culminate in device testing at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at NASA Johnson Space Center.

This proposal supports student participation in the Micro-g Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams (Micro-g NExT) program, in which students design, build, and test a tool which can be used to solve a current problem relevant to NASA. It includes activities at the NASA Johnson Space Center Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) and is administered by the JSC Microgravity University Office (NASA Education). Students will submit a proposal addressing one of several challenges to be posted by NASA (for example, recently students worked on lunar core sampling devices in support of NASA's Artemis program). This is in direct alignment with the science, technology, exploration, and educational missions and priorities espoused by NASA.


Adam Jensen
University of Nebraska at Kearney, Department of Physics & Astronomy

(Out)reach to the Stars: UNK's Planetarium Serving Central Nebraska

The Planetarium at the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK) is an important teaching tool for courses in the Physics and Astronomy Department (PHYS 100 - Physical Science, PHYS 210/210L - General Astronomy and Lab, and more). The UNK Planetarium is also a significant source of outreach throughout central Nebraska, providing (upon request) multiple shows per week, free of charge, to requesting public and private K-12 schools. Finally, the UNK Planetarium provides public outreach in the form of monthly shows for the local Kearney community. The requested funds will be used for routine, necessary maintenance of the UNK Planetarium, specifically its projector. The projector requires this maintenance in order to be fully functional and show all aspects of celestial motion that it is designed for.

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Jennifer Miller
Prairie STEM

Space Camp

This past year has presented unique challenges for students and teachers. Due to COVID-19 there was limited instructional time, core competencies were focused on Reading and Math resulting in gaps in Sciences and critical thinking. To combat these challenges Prairie STEM is offering Space Camps. During Space camp students will build and customize their very own fully functional, programmable Rover. Utilizing sensors, actuators, and electronic modules they will use critical thinking and creativity to complete problem-based, lunar and space missions. Through building their Rovers students will learn design engineering principles, coding/programming, circuits/currents. Integrated learning will include STEM/SEL principles to complete space missions involving lunar exploration, shelter pod space clearing, and more. Students will explore career pathways in aerospace, engineering, project management, leadership.

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Sangjin Ryu
UNL, Department of Mechanical & Materials Engineering

Investigation of surface topography effect on drop coalescence for metal additive manufacturing

The selective laser melting (SLM) method is one of the most promising metal additive manufacturing (or 3D printing) technologies for NASA missions because it enables on-demand production of customized metal components. During the SLM process, molten metal powder particles merge like liquid drops on the rough surface of a part in print, forming the melt pool where process-induced pores develop. This porosity is a critical problem of SLM-produced parts in terms of their quality and mechanical properties. In contrast, if pore formation can be controlled for SLM, such parts would be useful for numerous NASA applications. The detailed mechanism of pore formation is poorly understood due to the very complicated interfacial fluid dynamics of the melt pool involving surface topography. This study would contribute to advancing the understanding of pore development in the SLM process, by characterizing the effect of surface topography on liquid drop coalescence and following bubble entrapment.

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Song-Young Park
University of Nebraska at Omaha, Health & Kinesiology

Sex differences in group III/IV muscle afferent stimulation during prolonged...

In the space flight, astronauts are exposed to a variety of potentially hazardous agents including chemical contaminants and cosmic radiation leads to chronic pathological complications like carcinogenesis and neurological damage. Research over the past several years has been aimed to find different biological countermeasures. Unfortunately, very limited safe and effective drugs are available for these conditions. Furthermore, these treatments face numerous issues such as drug side-effects, toxicities, and resistance development. Safe and effective phytochemicals, owing to their potent antioxidant activity, have emerged as a new line of treatment. The unmet need is to convert these conventional phytochemicals into novel formulations and harness their tremendous pharmaceutical potential. This proposal aims to design novel Solid lipid nanoparticles of phytochemicals viz. curcumin, quercetin, their combinations in polymers and lipids to leverage their potent antioxidant activity.

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Jordan Borrell
University of Nebraska at Omaha

Motor Representation of the Primary Motor Cortex in Healthy Adults as Measured by Functional...

Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) is a portable, non-invasive, inexpensive method of monitoring cerebral hemodynamic activity (oxygen levels) at moderate depths (surface cortices), which makes it suitable for movement tasks. The purpose of this proposal is to determine the feasibility of using standardized fNIRS equipment to determine the motor representation of the primary motor cortex (M1), which hasn’t been done before. For example, these fNIRS maps would become the baseline standard to compare to the cortical plasticity and muscle atrophy that occurs in astronauts after being exposed to zero-gravity for extended durations of time. More interestingly, a portable fNIRS system can more easily be sent to space and now to Mars, as compared to other neural imaging devices. It is hypothesized that these fNIRS maps will follow the topographical maps produced via other neural imaging devices but will be spatially limited to proximal and distal movements.


Hank Miller
Nebraska Indian Community College, Department of Math & Science

Nebraska Indian Community College Infrastructure Enhancement

Nebraska Indian Community College has worked hard to increase their research capacity on their three campuses in Nebraska. The funding from this Higher Education Mini-Grant will support a student reseacher to work alongside NICC faculty who have been long engaged in NASA funding and projects. The student researcher will learn project managment skills to coordinate all things NASA at NICC and assist the faculty with research progress throughout the year. The student researcher will also assist with the virtual reality (VR) equipement to be used in many courses at NICC throughout the year. The VR equipement will share NASA curriculum with many NICC students. NICC's current research projects are their prairie restoration and environmental monitoring projects. The student researcher will also be involved ensuring milestones for the research projects are met and work on recording data and reporting of the research.

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William Loring
Western Nebraska Community College, Department of IT & Computer Science

Enhancing Computer Science Curriculum using off-the-shelf Robotics and IoT Kits...

What if we could simulate a trip to another planet using off the shelf robotics kits that can be purchased almost anywhere in the world?

The WNCC Computer Science program integrates Agile Development, KanBan boards, GitHub, robotics, algorithmic problem-solving, and other current software engineering techniques to prepare students for professional software engineering positions.

The pipeline begins with Intro to Robotics. We use an open source off the shelf Arduino based robot to teach the basic constructs of programming in our Computer Science curriculum using Arduino C. The robot shows students their “code in motion”.

Our Python class aligns with more advanced robotics, CyberSecurity, API’s, GIS, and data analytics, just to name a few. The GoPiGo, based on a Raspberry Pi, is used for more advanced robotics and NASA Fellowships.

This flow of learning is part of our program to train students in real world skills.

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Shane Farritor
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Department of Mechanical & Materials Engineering

JPL Mentored Senior Design Projects

This activity pairs a UNL Mechanical Engineering Senior Design team with mentors from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Under the guidance of the JPL engineers, the students will work on a real world project chosen by the JPL engineers.

This work will be presented at E-week at UNL, senior deign showcase, and Nebraska Academy of Sciences annual meeting.

Student members will acquire hands on experience in the design and build of real world NASA projects. Hands on experience is highly valued for potential employees.

This mentoring relationship will be continued for both semesters of this academic year. The plan would be to continue this partnership into the future. Lessons learned through this partnership will be applied to future semesters.

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Daphne Cook
Metropolitan Community College, Continuing Education

Increasing Participation of Underrepresented Populations in Science on a Sphere

MCC’s Informal Education Mini Grant project aligns with NASA’s Science Mission Directorate by providing underserved and underrepresented youth with programming using the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Science on a Sphere. This permanent exhibit offers high quality, interactive programs to study STEM. Utilizing NOAA's Science on a Sphere, this project will promote STEM interest and education, and exposure to STEM careers by working with underserved and underrepresented elementary and middle school students in Omaha, NE.

Science on a Sphere Experiences will provide astronomy and physics-based learning opportunities hosted at MCC’s North Express at Highlander Accelerator which is located in a designated Opportunity Zone. These experiences will be used to increase STEM accessibility to area youth, normalize minority participation in physics and astronomy, and define clear academic and career pathways into high-demand STEM fields.

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Dunesh Kumari
College of Saint Mary,  Chemistry

Solid lipid nanoparticles of phytochemicals viz. curcumin, quercetin, their combinations in polymers and lipids...

In the space flight, astronauts are exposed to a variety of potentially hazardous agents including chemical contaminants and cosmic radiation leads to chronic pathological complications like carcinogenesis and neurological damage. Research over the past several years has been aimed to find different biological countermeasures. Unfortunately, very limited safe and effective drugs are available for these conditions. Furthermore, these treatments face numerous issues such as drug side-effects, toxicities, and resistance development. Safe and effective phytochemicals, owing to their potent antioxidant activity, have emerged as a new line of treatment. The unmet need is to convert these conventional phytochemicals into novel formulations and harness their tremendous pharmaceutical potential. This proposal aims to design novel Solid lipid nanoparticles of phytochemicals viz. curcumin, quercetin, their combinations in polymers and lipids to leverage their potent antioxidant activity.


Hank Miller
Nebraska Indian Community College  Department of Math & Science

NICC Environmental Monitoring and Prairie Restoration

NICC has been investing in two college-wide research projects, involving all three campuses in Nebraska, monitoring the environment and how it affects the way we live. These projects study our native lands and human factors on our environment and weather, including natural disasters such as tornados and flooding. In 2021/2022 our efforts to monitor our environment will expand with the use of drones to collect data and will engage more students and faculty in this research. NICC's new greenhouse will be utilized to grow native plants as well as cross research with NICC's Praire Restoration project. Funding from 2020/2021 greatly increased our capacity to do this research and we are looking forward to utilizing all the new research materials to futher study native plants and building our historical weather data and increasing our work on monitoring our enviroment and that affects it has on our reservations.


Ran Wang
University of Nebraska-Lincoln,  School of Natural Resources

SG Research FY22 UNL Wang

Biodiversity supports essential ecosystem functions that benefit human well-being, but large-scale biodiversity monitoring remains challenging. Remote sensing allows us to quantify biodiversity and ecosystem function across large spatial extents, and developing standardized methods to do so is a primary goal of NASA’s Surface Biology and Geology (SBG) mission. Our work has demonstrated the potential for quantifying forest diversity and ecosystem function using airborne data as a key step in developing and validating satellite-based methods. The proposed study will build on our ongoing work to use information in fall foliar pigment changes, which we hypothesize will improve biodiversity detection using remote sensing. This project will contribute a methodology for quantifying biodiversity and ecosystem function for Nebraskan forests but can also be generalizable to other forest ecosystems and therefore directly contribute to NASA’s SBG mission.

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