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Faculty Mini-Grants 2016-2017

PI: Dr. Amanda Roe, Biology, College of Saint Mary

Title: Elementary Science Outreach Program


The College of Saint Mary Elementary Science Outreach Program coordinates the provision of hands-on science activities in local elementary schools that promote interest and engagement in the STEM fields. This is accomplished by bringing hands-on activities, College of Saint Mary science students, and all necessary tools, supplies and equipment to the elementary school classroom. The program, over the last four years, has developed more than a dozen activities, all of which fit within the State of Nebraska’s science curriculum as provided at the elementary school level. The majority of the work in the management and delivery of the program is performed by undergraduate students. Two lead students manage the schedules, contact the teachers, and oversee the “Outreach Team,” which includes more than thirty college students who volunteer to provide the science activities. In the last four years, the Science Outreach Project has reached over 3,000 students at 14 different elementary schools in the Omaha area.

PI: Kelly Gomez-Johnson, College of Education, UNO

Title: NASA System Modeling for K-12 STEM Teachers


NASA's Education program’s mission is to “strengthen student involvement and public awareness about its scientific goals and missions”. Within the NASA Office of Education, there is also emphasis on the promotion of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).  This project will bring NASA resources and content to Nebraska STEM teachers in order to increase student and teacher involvement, interest, and awareness of authentic space connections to Nebraska K-12 state standards. Specifically, this project will include educating classroom teachers on Earth Systems Science through a new, blended format graduate course, applying NASA’s Space Math into already existing mathematics curriculum, and preparing learning and safety activities for the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse. Our goal is to bring attention to these topics for teachers and to align current events to course content so that it is a natural and appropriate supplement to their K-12 curriculum.

PI: Phyllis Higley, Biology, College of Saint Mary

Title: Epidemiology of Pythium root rot in hydroponically grown lettuce


This project aligns with both the Human Exploration & Operations (HEO) and the NASA Office of Education programs. An initiative of HEO is to promote the culture of plants for food on the international space station (ISS), and initial efforts have focused on hydroponically grown lettuce. However, plant culture can be limited by diseases caused by microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and oomycetes. Hydroponically grown plants are especially prone to pathogens such as Pythium species because they produce motile and nonmotile inocula that disseminate readily in moist environments. In fact, Pythium root rot is a significant concern in hydroponic culture. Hydroponic culture is often used in conjunction with various support substrates. These materials can act as harborage for pathogens and provide a source of inoculum to new seedlings, thus promoting disease spread. However, it’s possible that there are differences in the ability of different substrates to support Pythium, and it would be useful to know which substrates are less likely to support Pythium. Therefore, one of the goals of our research is to evaluate the dispersal and infection of Pythium spp. on lettuce as influenced by different hydroponic support substrates. Because this specific area of research has not previously been studied, appropriate inoculum production protocols must be developed. Both motile (zoospores) and nonmotile (mycelia, sporangia, and oospores) inocula can infect hydroponically grown plants, but zoospores are the greatest concern due to their motility. Zoospore production in the lab can, however, be elusive. We will continue to evaluate culture conditions that may promote zoospore production. Additionally, we will compare the effectiveness of different inoculum forms (e.g., mycelium or sporangia) in causing disease symptoms in hydroponic lettuce. This research will provide valuable information when planning the set-up and management of hydroponic culture on the ISS.

PI: Dunesh Kumari, Chemistry, College of Saint Mary

Title: Curcumin and resveratrol combination as potent antioxidants to prevent oxidative stress associated with space travel


Our Research goal aligns very well with Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) mission of keeping astronauts healthy. “Countermeasure” is the term that NASA uses to describe the procedures, medications, devices, and other strategies that help keep astronauts healthy and productive during space travel and return to Earth. In the space flight, astronauts are exposed to a variety of potential hazardous agents including chemical contaminants and cosmic radiation which cause oxidative stress and lead to the increased production of free radicals, which are reactive oxygen species. These free radicals mediate peroxidation of membrane lipids and cause oxidative damage of DNA and proteins. This damage leads to chronic pathological complications like carcinogenesis and neurological damage. Research over the past several years has been aimed to find different biological countermeasures. Dietary antioxidants are identified as one of the potential biological countermeasures to mitigate the oxidative stress caused by free radicals. The antioxidants constitute a line of defense against all of the aforementioned radiation risks. The aim of our work is to investigate combined phytochemicals such as curcumin and resveratrol as potent antioxidants for astronauts. Extensive research has been carried out to study the antioxidant properties of phytochemicals. Curcumin and resveratrol are thought to play a vital role against oxidative stresses mediated pathological conditions, and thus have desirable preventative and putative therapeutic properties. Curcumin and Resveratrol in combination have been found to show antioxidant synergy. Our research focuses on studying the synergetic effect of their combined antioxidant potential and free radical scavenging abilities.

PI: Dustin R. Slivka, HPER, UNO

Title: Regulation of Body Mass in Extreme Environments


The dietary intake of food is mediated by several hormones that either stimulate or inhibit appetite.  Exposure to a hypoxic environment as well as a hot environment has been reported to lead to a loss of appetite and consequentially a loss in body mass. These projects will investigate the impact of temperature and hypoxia on the hormonal regulation of appetite.  Another primary aspect of body mass is skeletal muscle.  Our preliminary evidence suggests that local heat application may stimulate and local cold application may inhibit gene expression associated with muscle growth.  We plan to further investigate this temperature effect by determining the impact of temperature on the primary muscle growth pathway (mTOR) and the primary muscle breakdown pathway (FOXO3a).  Together, these data will help us to understand how the external environment influences human physiology regulating body mass.

PI: Matthew Wilkins, Biology, UNL

Title: SciComm 2016: A 2-Day Conference on Science Communication


SciComm2016 was a two-day conference on effective science communication held at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on September 23 and 24, 2016. This conference represented a unique opportunity for a broad, multi-disciplinary group of science communicators from disparate fields, working with K-12 and undergrad students, and the general public to meet, interact, share knowledge, forge collaborations. Attendees learned about proper design and implementation of outreach projects at a broader impacts workshop, hosted in collaboration with the National Alliance for Broader Impacts. They performed outreach by presenting hands-on learning modules, science-based multimedia, and interactive performances at "Science Night Live," an event at the Railyard in downtown Lincoln. Attendees also watched, discussed, and presented at a science communication symposium, featuring speakers from across the country. A major goal of science communication is to engage ALL members of the general public in scientific endeavors, and critical thinking more generally. As such, major subjects of discourse will be effective measures for captivating the attention of hard-to-reach students in STEM topics and breaking stereotypes and preconceptions about who does science in order to address persistent gender and racial inequities in STEM professions. We believe that our mission is extremely well aligned with NASA, as an engaged public that values science will expect and demand that government funds be spent on improving our exploration and understanding of the universe.

PI: Rebecca Lai, Chemistry, UNL

Title: UNL Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physical Sciences


The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) is bringing together outstanding student researchers in the physical sciences for its eighth annual Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physical Sciences, held Thursday, October 27 through Saturday, October 29, 2016. Undergraduate students in physics and related disciplines are invited to take part in this unique opportunity to expand upon their current research experiences, and to attend scientific talks given by scientists who are leaders in their fields.  In addition to highlighting progress in materials science, there will be scientific talks covering all aspects of physics and astronomy, including a plenary talk by Dr. Lucie Johannes of NASA Johnson Space Center. Undergraduate students with research in all areas of the physical sciences, including physics, materials science, nanoscience, optics, photonics, astronomy, physical chemistry, and applied physics and engineering, are encouraged to attend.  Participants will be able to present their research results to their peers during invited talks and poster sessions. Social activities and special sessions will also provide time for participants to share experiences with other students, to obtain advice for pursuing careers in physics, and to visit laboratories on the UNL campus. More information about the WoPhyS ‘16 Conference can be found at http://wophys.unl.edu/.

PI: Byrav Ramamurthy, Computer Science & Engineering, UNL

Title: Satellite Communications for Mobile Backhaul in Rural Areas


The race to put satellites in Low Earth Orbits (LEO) and Geostationary orbits (GEO) has been increasing, and a number of projects/companies such as ViaSat [1], OneWeb [2] and O3B [3], to cite a few, have been either recently initiated or continuing to improve the satellite communication (SATCOM) technologies with the hope to connect the whole world. In fact, a study [4] has shown that the population of the world that is still not connected to the Internet is estimated to be 4.4 billion. The study also showed that the majority of the people unconnected to the Internet live in rural areas where the there are not infrastructures in place. Connecting these people through SATCOM networks faces three main problems: delay, cost and availability. Furthermore, there has to be a backhaul network that collects data from the satellite and distributes it to the users and vice versa. In our project, we propose to optimize mobile traffic over satellite backhauls in order to overcome the three main issues listed above. We plan to evaluate our work using simulation tools that mimic real-world networks using a rich database of already existing satellites.

PI: Craig Zuhlke, Electrical and Computer Engineering, UNL

Title: Femtosecond laser direct writing for advanced functionalization of silver and stainless steel for condensing heat exchanger applications


NASA is working to develop the next generation of condensing heat exchangers (CHX) to be used on 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. This project will utilize a femtosecond laser direct writing technique to produce superhydrophobic and superhydrophilic surface properties on both silver and stainless steel to be used in the next generation of CHX’s. Femtosecond laser direct writing is a technique that is highly compatible with the common low energy femto or picosecond lasers used in industry today. Femtosecond direct writing is also a promising method for functionalizing silver, which is critical for the CHX research. The functionalization of silver has not been achieved using other femtosecond laser based techniques, but silver is desired as the CHX construction material due to its inherent antimicrobial properties. Femtosecond laser direct writing has the potential to make femtosecond laser surface processing a more viable option for functionalizing silver and stainless steel surfaces for use in the CHX’s onboard the ISS and in vessels used for deep space travel.