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Students Explore Organisms Transfer Prevention through at NASA

Student learning disaster recovery skills
August 07, 2023

Alabama A&M Students Attend NASA Planetary Protection Workshop

Sixteen Alabama A&M University students in the Department of Biological & Environmental Sciences had an opportunity to participate in a 3-day NASA Planetary Protection Space Biology workshop which provided hands-on training in DNA sample preparation for sequencing and bioinformatic analysis of potentially novel microbial genomes. The students were tasked with isolating genomic DNA from microbes that had been collected from spacecraft clean rooms at NASA labs and analyzing the genomes of these microbes to identify them. 

This unique and rare opportunity allowed the students to work with samples that are of particular interest at NASA, igniting their curiosity and passion for scientific discovery. The workshop was organized by AAMU faculty Dr. Tyesha Farmer and Dr. Keneshia Johnson and NASA AMES Research Center representatives Lisa Guan, Akemi Hinzer and Dr. Mike Lee. 

“This opportunity would not have been possible without the longstanding partnership between AAMU RISE Foundation and NASA-JPL and the support of BES admin” said Dr. Farmer. “Their support exemplifies Alabama A&M's commitment to providing its students with exceptional learning experiences and preparing them for careers in fast-growing fields of science.”

As NASA prepares to launch a series of Artemis missions that will eventually lead to the return of samples from Mars, adhering to strict planetary protection protocols is vitally important. Planetary protection involves methods that prevent both forward transfer of earth organisms to celestial bodies and reverse transfer of alien organisms to the Earth ecosystem. Thus, it is imperative to understand and identify microbes that can survive the rigorous cleaning procedures used in cleanrooms where spacecraft are assembled. 

Participants completed a Unix/command line crash course and learned to use bioinformatics database resources to query their genomic sequences and determine if any of their samples might be novel. 

Reflecting on their experience, the students expressed their excitement and gratitude for being part of such a cutting-edge research opportunity that allowed them to connect their knowledge in biology to real-world applications. Several were motivated to pursue further research opportunities in the field of space biology at NASA. 

AAMU student participants included Abigael Francois, Adrian Rhoden, Ambreal White, Aminatou Diallo, Andreana Jones, Elijah Nix, Jer-Michael Nix, JoAnna Dennis, Jordan Gatewood, Joshua Stanley, Kehinde Olawepo, Marshae Scott, Mia Lockhart, Ti-yanna Watson, Tyhane Bedgood, and Whitney Spencer.