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Polymers in spaaaaaace

by DEVIN WEEKS
Staff Writer | February 3, 2021 1:00 AM

A 2017 Coeur d'Alene High School graduate is one of six University of Idaho students whose research is literally going to be out of this world.

Hannah Johnson, who was born at Kootenai Health and brought up through the Coeur d'Alene School District, is part of the U of I College of Engineering team that is participating in NASA’s Student Payload Opportunity With Citizen Science program.

This entails an experiment that will be sent to the International Space Station for 30 days without any interaction or observation from the station crew before it returns to Earth for further research. The students want to know: How does microgravity impact the efficacy of polymers known to resist bacteria on Earth?

"We definitely had the coronavirus in mind when we were developing the project," Johnson said Tuesday, explaining that staph aureus, a common but dangerous bacteria, was chosen to test the effectiveness of the polymers.

"If anything can be bacteria resistant, that's going to help in overall public health and public safety," she said.

The polymers have a gel consistency, so part of the problem is configuring how to attach them to high-contact aluminum alloy surfaces such as the door handles and handrails used in the ISS.

"We’re really excited to see what happens," Johnson said. "We think, hopefully, our polymers will show even better resistance in microgravity."

The Vandal team comprises chemical engineering seniors Johnson, Adriana Bryant, Travis Lindsay, Roslyn McCormack, Niko Hansen and Kael Stelck and is led by NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium Director and U of I chemical engineering associate professor Matt Bernards.

The finalists were announced in December after nine teams delivered presentations for NASA's consideration.

"It was intimidating to see some Ivy (schools) in there, but we held our ground," Johnson said.

When she heard the news the U of I team was selected, Johnson said she was "freaking out."

"I was jumping up and down, I called my parents," she said. "My significant other was jumping up and down with me. It was very exciting."

The research is expected to launch to the ISS in December. The teams will gather in Texas for the big day.

"We're pretty excited," Johnson said. "It will be a nice little reunion."

As part of the NASA-funded project, teams are expected to involve K-12 students in their research. Johnson's team is building research kits for 240 Russell Elementary School students in Moscow.

“That's been one of my favorite parts, the chance to inspire students," Johnson said. "Everyone that picks STEM has that moment they can look back on and say, 'That's when I found out science was really cool.'"

The other student teams and projects for NASA’s Student Payload Opportunity With Citizen Science program are:

•Arkansas State University: Microgravity Environment Impact on Plastic Biodegradation by Galleria mellonella

•Columbia University: Characterizing Antibiotic Resistance in Microgravity Environments

•Stanford University: Biopolymer Research for In-Situ Capabilities

•The University of New Hampshire at Manchester: Novel Methods of Antibiotic Discovery in Space

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Courtesy photo

Coeur d'Alene High School graduate Hannah Johnson, now a chemical engineering senior at the University of Idaho, is on a team selected by NASA to send research to the International Space Station.

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Courtesy photo

A team from the University of Idaho is one of five selected by NASA to participate in the Student Payload Opportunity With Citizen Science program. From left: Adriana Bryant, Travis Lindsay, Kael Stelck, Niko Hansen, Hannah Johnson, Roslyn McCormack and Matt Bernards, NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium Director and U of I chemical engineering associate professor.