The arrival of June may kick-start vacation or a summer job for many students, but for two University of Bridgeport (UB) students, today’s turn of the calendar means it’s finally time to send their research project to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX-15 spacecraft.

Last fall, UB biology majors Feissal Djoule, of West Haven, CT, and Emily Juliano, of Shelton, CT, competed to take part in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, an initiative of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) to support student-proposed research designed for a low-gravity environment aboard the International Space Station.

Just after the New Year, Djoule and Juliano learned that their project, one of more than 1,959 proposals that had been submitted to the NCESSE for consideration, had been selected for the prestigious program.

Now, this month—at 6 a.m., Thursday, June 28—a Falcon 9 rocket designed and manufactured by SpaceX will blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to the International Space Station.

In its payload: Djoule’s and Juliano’s research project, formally titled “The Effect of Microgravity on Nanoparticle-Cellular Interaction.”

“Today when I woke up, I thought, ‘Finally the month is here!’” said Djoule, 23. “It’s very exciting. We tried very hard, and when we found out [in January] that we made it, Emily and I couldn’t believe it. It’s a beautiful feeling.”

Djoule and Juliano are being advised by Dr. Isaac G. Macwan, a research associate at UB’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Their project focuses on changes in cellular proteins in order to increase understanding of questions that have been possibly been asked since the beginning of space exploration: What are the effects of space flight on human health? How does low gravity affect the body’s biological processes? Can anything be done to ameliorate potential damage?

It’s already known that astronauts experience physiological changes in microgravity, “such as bone demineralization, vestibular problems causing space motion sickness, cardiovascular problems, and reduction in plasma volume and red cell mass,” says Macwan. “If we can capture an image of the cellular process that’s changing in space and analyze it, we can make a comparison to what happens on earth and can further monitor the changes to eventually repair or prevent them from happening in the first place.”

To make the comparison, astronauts will simultaneously conduct Djoule’s and Juliano’s research project aboard the International Space Station while the two students do the same at one of UB’s labs. More specifically, both groups will combine mammalian cells with graphene carbon dots, miniscule carbon particles that are no bigger than five to seven nanometers in size. If all goes as expected, the carbon will begin to mark proteins in the cells. That, in turn, will create a mechanism for researchers to observe cellular changes and other processes, such as delivery of drugs into cells.

“It’s what they call the ground truth experiment; whatever they are doing in space, we are doing replicating here on earth in the lab,” Macwan said. “Once our project arrives at the Space Station, they will take it aboard and . . .  mix mammalian cells with the graphene quantum dots. That’s when we’ll open identical samples of cells and carbon to see the effect of gravity.”

The experiment is expected to run for two to three weeks.

“This is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Juliano, 21. “As an undergraduate, we do experiments in a lab all the time. We ran a bunch of preliminary tests over the winter break because we wanted to develop the project more. The tests that were successful here on earth. Now we’ll throw gravity into the mix. Will we see something different? I’m really looking forward to seeing how the absence of gravity affects the experiment and what that means for our cell samples.”

Funding for some of the research was awarded to UB from the Connecticut Space Grant Consortium.

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education in the U.S. and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with DreamUp PBC and NanoRacks LLC, which are working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.

Media contact: Leslie Geary, (203) 576-4625, lgeary@bridgeport.edu