College Bio class sends experiment to International Space Station

WASHINGTON, DC — Wellsville, we have liftoff.

A small piece of the Western New York town blasted off from Cape Canaveral in the early morning hours Friday. Destination: the International Space Station (ISS), some 240 miles above the earth.

Wellsville is on the global stage thanks to the hard work of six students in Ross Munson’s College Biology class — Brandon Bailey, Shannon Nye, David Graham, Tyler Watson, Trinity Roulo and Nichelle Dannheim.

The group developed an original experiment proposal for the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. The experiment they created from scratch in their Welsville classroom caught the eye of contest officials, who thought it was promising enough to warrant precious space aboard the ISS, mankind’s lone toehold in the heavens.

The students watched the launch from a conference room in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where they later presented their work to a packed house Friday afternoon.

“It didn’t seem real, but once we saw the rocket go up we knew all the hard work, the late nights and the long hours had paid off,” said Bailey.

The Wellsville team’s proposal is titled “The Effect of Ascorbic Acid on Planarian Regeneration in Microgravity.” That’s the scientific wording. Ascorbic acid is Vitamin C. Planarians are a type of flatworm. Wellsville is sending worms to space.

Those Wellsville worms might push humanity further into the cosmos.

The student space experiment aims to help earthbound scientists determine how to best treat astronauts during long term space travel. The goal is to counteract the effects of muscle atrophy and bone mass loss, one of the major barriers to humanity’s expansion to the stars.

“We definitely hope the experiment comes back and they’ve regenerated a lot better than they would have done on earth,” Bailey said. “We’d be happy to see that, but we have no expectation.”

The unmanned SpaceX cargo craft is scheduled to dock at the ISS early Monday. Provided the worms survive their trip into orbit, the ISS crew will conduct the experiment designed by the Wellsville team in the zero-g space environment.

“We’re prepared for the worse case scenario,” said Nye. “We’ve prepared ourselves for the chance they’ve died already, but it’s about the experience more than the outcome.”

The experience has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the team, which has been profiled by newspaper articles and television segments.

“It’s surreal. It’s something that’s unique,” Bailey said. “Wellsville doesn’t get a lot of recognition for things like this. Walking around town, people say they saw us in the paper or on the news. It’s cool to represent Wellsville and small town Allegany County.”

The success has sparked some renewed interest in science; Munson noted that next year’s incoming class is 18 strong. The plan is to pursue the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program once again, but the bar has been set sky high by this year’s group.

“It’s been my best year of teaching,” Munson said. “We took on this project on a whim, with no clue what we were getting into. It’s paying huge dividends in terms of what the kids have gotten out of it versus what we traditionally do. It’s way more authentic and meaningful. The kids are in the driver’s seat and running the show. It takes the right group of people working together. We had the perfect mix.”

The small team has created a deep bond that nobody envisioned when they walked into College Bio for the first time. They’ve spent countless hours together in and outside the classroom, including the trip to the nation’s capital and an earlier visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“That place is insane. The size of everything is incredible,” Bailey said. “You can be two miles away from something and you’d think you’d be standing right next to it. It was incredible to see where the rockets launch from.”

Nye said one of her favorite experiences was meeting astronauts and hearing their inspirational stories, both in DC and Florida. One astronaut relayed all the obstacles he had to overcome before he could earn that most prestigious of job titles.

The Wellsville team faced its own obstacles on its journey to space.

“We’ve had some challenges along the way,” Munson recalled. “Loading the final tubes to go into space, we realized half our worms died the day before. Obstacles like that popped up. Okay, this has to be shipped today, let’s put our heads together and figure it out. How do we ship a package and keep it cold for three days while it’s shipping? The kids did a lot of problem solving.”

The students will be exploring new worlds in the fall as they embark on their freshman year of college — Bailey to Daemen College, Nye to LeMoyne, Graham to Geneseo, Dannheim to Alfred University, Roulo to St. John Fisher, and Watson to Northern Michigan.

Their experience conquering space has set them up for success.

“There’s a lot of small details you don’t think about that pop up. You have to work together to overcome it and figure out how to best solve the problem,” Bailey said.

Although they’re soon going their separate ways, the team will remain forever linked by its time on the project.

“I think it really brought us together as a class,” Nye said. “We’re a family now.”