As an undergraduate student involved in research, I get a lot of questions from eager friends asking how I got involved with an organization company like BioServe Space Technologies. I came to CU for its aerospace engineering program, and I was especially intrigued by its bioastronautics program. I grew up watching “Star Trek” and I idolized Stephen Hawking and was also raised by two physicians; so naturally I was curious in both sciences growing up.
I came to CU with a mission to be involved with the plethora of ongoing research within the campus, and more specifically its research in space life sciences. I even mentioned this goal, along with the research organization BioServe Space Technologies on my application essay to CU. During my second semester of freshman year, I took the opportunity to apply to an undergraduate research assistant position at BioServe upon seeing an ad for it in my email. I was fortunate to receive an offer for this position by February.
BioServe was the perfect environment for me, as its mission is to support high-impact space life science research. BioServe supports space life science research by not only conducting research in-house, but also by supporting other scientists to design, build, fly and support their science experiments that go to the International Space Station (ISS).
For example, BioServe develops, builds and operates high-tech incubators for use on the station. Currently, BioServe has three of its newest incubators, called Space Automated Bioproduct Laboratory (SABL), that now reside on the station. This allows BioServe to command these incubators from the ground, making it one of the few research centers with the capability to command a part of the ISS.
As an undergraduate research assistant at BioServe, I’ve had the chance to develop many skills that will be useful to my overarching career goals. I help nearly all parts of the center. This includes working in the machine shop to develop hardware, assembling tissue kits and syringes in a sterile hood, conducting pressure and vacuum tests, and writing/editing documents for NASA. While astronauts conduct our experiments, I work in operations with BioServe Flight Director Shankini Doraisingam in the Payload Operations Command Center, who speaks to astronauts in space to ensure they understand the steps of the BioServe supported experiments.
I’ve also had the chance to witness scientific experiments being developed and implemented. As I have learned these past few months, getting any science experiment to space is a very daunting task. After the validity of the experiments are confirmed and the funding is in place, months of work are devoted to developing the hardware, ensuring the science experiment has a ticket to the ISS on a spacecraft, establishing experimental procedures for astronauts, allocating astronauts’ time to run the experiments and ensuring the science experiment poses no risk to the astronauts among other things.
In my time at BioServe, I have really deepened my understanding of the field. I have seen what a fast-paced environment looks like and what it takes to adapt to it. I have been a part of a tight-knit community of people who collaborate on many projects at a time to produce some of NASA’s most impactful space life research. There are staff that come from numerous countries; people with numerous professional backgrounds, such as working for NASA, the United States military, or the European Space Agency; and then there’s me, an undergraduate student who is gratefully learning everything that I can from these people.
Associate Director Stefanie Countryman, when discussing the work environment at BioServe, said, “Having employees from diverse backgrounds makes us so unique and successful. BioServe is known for the ability to blend science and engineering, and we have a unique ability to focus on the science requirements when building our engineering components.”
When speaking with BioServe’s most recent hire, Shannon Floyd, who graduated with her bachelor’s in aerospace engineering in May of 2016 and is now a systems engineer at BioServe after working there for more than 2 years, I was able to learn more about her firsthand experiences with the center when she was a student.
“I love being able to support scientists and get their hardware to space and to see it performed on orbit and see their results,” Floyd said. “I really like that BioServe makes students an integral part of what we do; for my first payload as an undergraduate, I got to go down to Kennedy Space Center to prep my hardware, see it launch, and then see it operate on orbit. There are very few organizations where students get so much hands-on experience, and where the turn-around is so fast. I am very lucky to work at a fast-paced place where I get to see the hardware be used on orbit.”
I constantly learn from everyone’s diverse expertise, but every so often I hear amazing stories from the BioServe staff. These stories range from when Doraisingam saw astronaut Chris Hadfield sing and play guitar at Malaysian astronaut Shukor’s wedding, or when Doraisingam and Countryman travelled to Tanegashima, Japan with jumping spiders in their hands for Youtube Space Lab.
“It’s amazing getting to see an experiment from start to finish. We are involved from the beginning to the end of every experiment, and seeing the experiments get executed on orbit is very fulfilling,” Doraisingam said. “Another aspect of working at BioServe that is very important to me is working with the students. Students are very integral to BioServe, and that is another aspect that makes BioServe so different from any other organization that I’ve worked with. It’s really fulfilling to be involved in their careers and see them go places.”
As for myself, I hope to be here until I graduate. BioServe has shown me what academic research is truly like, and I’m inspired by all the hard work and ongoing research here. After my undergraduate years at CU, I hope to go to graduate school to earn my M.D. and Ph.D. to focus on research that ties space and biology together. After, I plan to become a research professor to work in meaningful research and to help students in their careers as the BioServe staff have done for me.
Working at BioServe has been one of the best parts of my college experience. While conducting interviews for this article, every employee said that BioServe is like a family, and I can attest to that. It is an amazing research center with extremely smart, hard-working, and friendly staff. The university is very fortunate to have this center as part of its domain, and I am extremely fortunate to be a part of it.
– Justin Wang