During the short time we’ve interned at NASA Kennedy Space Center under Dr. Oscar Monje, we learned a great deal about science and engineering. From learning the procedures and techniques all the way to simple things like knowing the rationale behind our course of action. To be certain, those are two things we will take from this internship, because Dr. Monje always stressed you knowing why you were doing something and knowing how to do it.
He showed us that it pays to learn as much about as many subjects as you can because that allows you to be more independent when doing experiments. That demonstrated to us that if you can do your job, then you won’t rely on anyone else and simultaneously be more efficient. Although we cannot begin to explain all that we have learned over this internship, we will say that we took away a few life lessons besides the engineering and biological subject matter.
The beginning of our internship was weird and unorthodox because we were out of our field. But reflecting back on the experiment, we realize how much engineering is related to plant biology.
Dr. Monje began by giving us a good background on what plant biology is and showed us what goes on at KSC in terms of plant biology. Then, he explained what we would be doing and still the overall outcome wasn’t clear to us. We believe Dr. Monje realized that we weren’t sure about the overall goal of our experiment so he gave us large objectives in sections and it wasn’t until the end of the internship that we realized the end game. With that said, during the entire experience that seemed to always be his main goal; getting us to realize why we are doing the things we are doing. Looking back with hindsight we now realize that.
He started us out in our experiment by having us develop a way to drain water from a root module. That was so we would be able to manipulate the moisture content in the soil in order to promote better growth of plants in space. We learned that there is a problem growing plants in space because the difference in gravity either causes water to flow more erratically than it does on Earth or causes it to gather in a certain area. That causes the plants to get an insufficient amount of water. To start, we cut tubing and connected it to act as drainage source and then connected a quick disconnect to the end so we could insert or extract as much water as we wanted.
Once that was completed, we had to do measuring tests on the root module to get the mass empty and the mass when it was filled with water. We repeated that process again. But this time, we added turf ace so we could develop a soil moisture curve. In doing so, we had to learn about sifting media, which is separating the different size grains of media. And we had to sift the turf ace to get the 1-2 mm Turf ace that we needed for our experiment.
All these measurements were needed in order to get a soil moisture content curve which can either display the water present in relation to the volumetric moisture content or the total volume in relations to the water present. Once we displayed a good bit of soil moisture curves, we used them to prepare how we were going to plant our wheat seeds in the root module that we had been experimenting with. Once we planned our steps, we planted one root module with wheat seeds and then we began the electrical work.
We got the soil moisture content curves we needed to find how the water present in the module was related to the voltage of the module. Then, it was time to lace electrode tape on the outside of the nodule. We had to connect a CR23X micro logger in order to program the sensors to measure the moisture. It was necessary to build voltage dividers and leads that would allow the circuit to successfully measure the voltage without tilting and gauge it correctly. Though it wasn’t easy, we finally got the system to work and it gave us a constant reading of the voltage of the root module. After that was done, we had to get the different readings of mass, voltage, water, and media present while the module was empty, with media, with water, and with both media and water. Once we got a good deal of these measurements we graphed them. Royce Reynolds wrote the program to get the sensors to predict the water present by relating it to the voltage of the module. Through continuous trial and error, the program became consistently accurate with an error ratio of plus or minus six milliliters.
The overall point in our experiment was to develop some reliable sensors that measured the moisture inside the root module which had never been done before. Going into the process, we would have never been able to see the main objective. Now that all is done we can honestly say we learned much more about plant biology than ever before. Our mentor not only taught us on the subject matter but he also taught us about life. These are also experiences we will never take for granted.
I appreciate all the people involved with the internship and words cannot express how thankful I am to Claflin-CIPAIR Project Director, Dr. Nesan Sriskanda, and his commitment to connect us with the NASA-KSC scientists and other officials for making it all possible.