Dr. Simone Duarte, clinical assistant professor of basic science and craniofacial biology, welcomed rising seventh grader Maya Karri to her research laboratory in May 2016 as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) — a nationwide program in which students compete to have experiments they’ve developed flown into outer space for microgravity testing.
Maya’s proposal to study the influence of microgravity on biofilm formation on contact lenses was one of 61 experiments selected by a national committee of scientific experts for launch on June 24, 2016. Maya says that while drafting her proposal, she conducted “a lot of research on biofilm formation and different kinds of bacteria. Using this data, and with help from my fifth and sixth grade science teachers, I was able to determine which bacteria would be best to test.” Maya used 30 colonies of the common strain of bacteria known as Serratia marcescens — provided by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center — to conduct her research.
Dr. Duarte, whose research includes the study of microgravity on the microbial biofilm matrix, was delighted to help Maya prepare the specimen for flight. She learned of the opportunity through a colleague, Dr. David Grier, professor of physics and director of the Center for Soft Matter Research at NYU’s College of Arts and Science.
After several months of preparation, Dr. Duarte and Maya transferred portions of the specimen to a Fluids Mixing Enclosure (FME) — a mini-laboratory designed to carry small samples of fluids and solids to the International Space Station for crewmembers to mix in low-Earth orbit. A duplicate experiment remains on Earth for gravity testing while the FME travels in space. In August, Maya will return to Dr. Duarte’s laboratory to compare the biofilm formation on each pair of contact lenses. She will present her research at a symposium at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, in summer 2017.
“Maya is an inspiration to young girls everywhere, including my daughter, Helena, a fourth grader who is already planning her own experiments to send into space,” says Dr. Duarte. “The students participating in the SSEP represent a generation filled with remarkably curious and brilliant young leaders.”