Currently Funded NASA EPSCoR RID Projects

“Using High-Resolution Simulations to Inform Observations of Galaxy Structure in the Early Universe.” Elizabeth McGrath, Physics and Astronomy, Colby College. – One of the primary goals of astrophysics today is developing an understanding of our cosmic origins through the study of the formation and evolution of galaxies from the Big Bang until the present day. Recently, both observational and theoretical approaches to this problem have made significant advances. This is due in part to technological developments that have enabled the observation of more and more distant galaxies over a larger region of the sky, as well as advances in computational techniques that have allowed for more and more accurate simulations of galaxy formation. However, considerable questions remain regarding how mass is assembled over time, and what physical processes are responsible for structural changes and the subsequent quenching of star-formation in galaxies. Further progress in this key area of astrophysics cannot rely on observation or theory alone. Therefore, Dr. McGrath proposes to initiate a collaborative research program between observers and theorists studying the formation and evolution of structure in galaxies over cosmic time. Through this program, Dr. McGrath will establish Colby College as a leader in the comparison of galaxy simulations with observations, and train Maine students in the statistical analysis of sizeable quantities of imaging data.

Simulated Microgravity and its Impact on Phosphatidylinositol Composition and Plasma Membrane Dynamics in Leukocytes.” Stephen Pelsue, Applied Medical Sciences, University of Southern Maine.  Extended time in space has been shown to have impacts on the immune system; while studies vary on the extent of the impact it appears that extended time in space results in reduction in immune capacity. With plans to return to the Moon and as well as a manned mission to Mars, a better understanding of the effect of zero gravity on the development and function of the immune system is paramount to the health of astronauts spending extended time in space. While, true, zero gravity cannot be studied in Earth bound experiments, microgravity can be simulated through a rotating wall vessel (RWV) culture system. Phosphatidylinositol (PI) and its phosphorylated derivatives play a critical role in maintaining cellular membranes as well as regulating cell signaling complexes. We have determined that the regulation of PI-4 Kinase is critical for the normal regulation of leukocytes, particularly lymphocytes. To better understand the cellular and molecular impact of microgravity on immune function we will evaluate simulated gravity on the cellular structures and dynamics related to PI composition in leukocyte cell lines. This will be accomplished by he evaluation of organelle structure and function, PI composition, PI-4K and PI-5K activity, and stress responses (particularly ER stress)in luekocyte cell lines cultured in simulated microgravity.

“Stellar Outflows from Oxygen-Rich Stars: Effect of Nucleation Models.” Daniel Martinez, Environmental Science, University of Southern Maine. This project seeks to apply a theoretical condensation model known as scaled nucleation theory to improve the simulation of silicate grain formation from the stellar outflows of oxygen-rich asymptotic giant branch stars, as well as to develop the capability at USM for continued collaboration with NASA Goddard after the seed funding ends. Building on the PI’s PhD work on nucleation theory, the PI will further develop a methodology for modeling the condensation of high temperature metallic elements and compounds relevant to stellar chemistry. The PI will assist in testing an existing Goddard stellar outflow model, as well as build capability to assist in future additional refinement of computer code. Phase I of this project is to communicate with Goddard staff to share and gather relevant information for applying scaled nucleation theory to systems of interest. Phase II will be to visit Goddard staff and learn the outflow code and create a methodology for calculating the nucleation and growth of clusters based on Phase I. Phase III will be to integrate the results into the outflow code and test results under variable conditions. This project represents a new direction for the PI as it relates to stellar outflow modeling; however, the PI has significant experimental and theoretical experience in nucleation phenomena. The PI will work closely with Goddard staff on this one-year project. It is expected that this project will result in a number of measureable outcomes, including publication(s), a fortified relationship with Goddard, and opportunities for undergraduate research.

“Experimental Studies of Potential Biosignatures in Serpentinite-Water Systems.”  Amanda Olsen, Earth and Climate Sciences, University of Maine.  Serpentine minerals have been observed in multiple locations on Mars, including intermixed with potential alteration products such as clay minerals. Serpentinite rocks are of particular interest in Mars Exploration because they are potentially habitable environments. They also contain multiple trace elements whose release may act as indicators of alteration conditions. Here we propose to use targeted experiments and modeling to test the hypothesis that aqueous alteration with and without organic compounds will result in chemical signatures of alteration distinct from unaltered serpentine. Such altered surfaces may therefore aid in the identification of potentially habitable serpentine environments on Mars. Dissolution experiments will test a) solutions containing inorganic acids; b) solutions containing organic compounds commonly resulting from abiotic processes (“abiotic organic compounds”); and c) solutions containing organic compounds commonly resulting from biological processes (“biotic organic compounds”). Results from these experiments will allow interpretation of potential chemical and mineralogical signatures of aqueous alteration, which are useful because they may persist in the intense radiation at the surface of Mars.

Previously Funded NASA EPSCoR RID Projects

“Astrobiological Investigation of Molecular Determinants of Structural Integrity and Biological Functionality of Viruses in Extreme Environments.”  Monroe Duboise, Applied Medical Sciences, University of Southern Maine. - Throughout this project Dr. Duboise and his team have worked to strengthen astrobiology research capacity and training in Maine through coordinated virological, biochemical, and ultrastructural research exploring the genetic, chemical, and physical adaptations shaping the virosphere of extreme environments.  Exemplifying fundamental molecular self organizing properties that are prerequisite for life’s origins and propagation, viruses are quintessential molecular models in which self-assembly is genetically encoded into nano-scale biological entities, the most abundant in Earth’s biosphere. This project has expanded upon our preliminary exploration of microbes and viruses in extreme environments at acidic, metal-rich, or permanently cold sites in Maine and at alkaline, hypersaline, and geothermal sites in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa.  In this project our virology, microbiology, electron microscopy, and biochemistry research team has been investigating the molecular genetics and the physical and biochemical parameters internal and external to host cells that determine the structural integrity and functionality of viruses in extreme environments using selected extremophile virus-host systems that we have isolated through field research and established in the laboratory during past years of research.  During these studies the research on extremophile virus self-assembly and structure has revealed basic knowledge of extremophile viruses that has also suggested important potential biotechnology and nanotechnology applications.  

Battery free Wireless Communication System for Harsh Environments.”  Ali Abedi, Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Maine. This project addresses the problem of wireless communications in harsh environments, where usage of batteries is not feasible. This research enables usage of wireless sensors in different types of harsh environments, such as: outer space and industrial places with high levels of electromagnetic radiation, noise, and interference (electromagnetically harsh) as well as extremely hot/cold environments (physically harsh) to monitor specific parameters such as temperature inside shuttle engine or on the exterior of shuttle when entering atmosphere. The developed technology is also applicable to monitoring civil infrastructure such as bridges and roads in Maine.  This project cross cuts three different research areas including:  Wireless Communications Systems, Coding Theory, and Sensor Devices.  The educational component includes graduate students, summer internships for undergraduates and new/revised courses.

“Real-Time Wireless Shape Monitoring of Deployable Space Structures.” Ali Abedi, Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Maine.  The research team focused on developing a real-time wireless shape monitoring system for inflatable space structures. New techniques for wireless distance and strain estimation and methods for modeling deployable structures were the main outcomes of this project. This project led to the establishment of UMaine’s Lunar Habitat, Wireless Sensing Laboratory (the first of its kind) to study inflatable space structures for extended manned missions on the moon and other planets. Recently, in January 2013, NASA Johnson Space Center and JACOBS Technology Company awarded another contract to UMaine to study usage of wireless sensors for monitoring International Space Station (ISS) Solar Arrays. This is an evidence of success in previous EPSCoR project and was not possible without EPSCoR support.