Valparaiso University was awarded over $100,000 from the Indiana Space Grant Consortium (INSGC), a not-for-profit organization consisting of 23 schools and corporate affiliates. This money will fund five research projects for faculty and students over the summer. Since Valpo joined the INSGC in 1996, faculty have applied for grants to conduct research. They apply by submitting proposals relating to NASA’s basic objectives.
“[The proposals] all have to relate in some way to one of NASA's core objectives. So, if you look at the titles of the grants, they may relate to things like the growth of organisms in space or something having to do with that,” said Assistant Director of Student Research Stan Zygmunt.
NASA gave out the grants to develop and train the next generation of scientists in several disciplines.
“And so these are people that NASA wants to support, so that they can build up national infrastructure for American science,” Zygmunt said.
The projects funded through these grants are part of Valpo’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program, a summer internship for students. As the INSGC is a subsidiary of NASA, the program is primarily for students in STEM majors. The internship is paid and provides free summer housing.
More importantly, it gives undergraduate students an opportunity to devote time to research something in which they’re interested.
“Having these experiences for a student, I think is very important, not only for students who want to go on and get a Masters or PhD, but for any student who's interested in learning more deeply about a subject and understanding how research works. Or you just get to know the area in a much deeper level than you would during the year in classes,” Provost Eric Johnson said.
Fourteen undergraduate Valpo students completed the internship this year in subjects such as biology, chemistry, engineering, astronomy and physics. Two students from Ivy Tech Community College in Valparaiso, IN were also accepted to join.
The projects covered a range of topics, with Zygmunt explaining that all of the research revolved around resolving practical issues in space travel. One included creating compounds to combat superbugs on the International Space Station.
“The application of that connection with space was ‘Hey you might be up in the space station for long periods of time and what sorts of odd organisms and bugs might we get up there’. Somebody gets sick, you can't bring your doctor up there all of a sudden to treat it, so you've got to develop resources that could be helpful in those environments,” Zygmunt said.
For astronomy students, the grants provide half the amount of funding for the Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy, through which Professor of Physics and Astronomy Todd Hillwig is able to lead students in operating three off-site telescopes, which are shared between multiple universities.
“There’s a telescope in Arizona, there's a telescope in Chile, and another one in the Canary Islands, that Professor Hillwig in our department is able to use to do observations for his research and there's an annual fee for that. The Space Grant gives us partial support to pay that fee,” Zygmunt said.
In addition, researchers attended weekly workshops on various STEM topics. These included “Diversity & Inclusion,” “Oral Presentations,” “Ethics in Research” and “Abstracts & Posters.”
All of the work conducted throughout the internship culminated with the Summer Interdisciplinary Research Symposium on July 23. The symposium allowed students to present their research to a larger audience and also featured guest speaker Dr. Karin Calvinho of startup company RenewCO2.
“The whole purpose is to highlight, to showcase all that you've done over the summer. It gives the students a great opportunity to talk with other faculty, with the administrators about what they did,” Johnson said.
Zygmunt is hoping the internship will be open to a broader range of studies in future years than just STEM disciplines.
“And so, we're always interested and excited about faculty members in other parts of [the] university who want to do research with students in the summers. It's just part of the culture in science and engineering, but [we’re] hoping to see that expand to other areas,” Zygmunt said.
For those interested, the student researchers will be presenting their work at a Fall Symposium. It will take place Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. in the Center for the Sciences.