Growing Plants Without the Dirt
Student researcher Angela Beaman is researching ways to grow plants on the International Space Station.
Where do you work and what is your title?
I work as a graduate student in the Horticulture Department at Iowa State University, under a Graduate Student Research Program fellowship through NASA. I do research on hydroponic basil to figure out what this plant can tolerate so it can grow well on the International Space Station. I also co-teach an introductory horticulture laboratory class, where I am in charge of the "Plants In Space" unit.
What degree did you obtain?
However odd this is, I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, but have always been interested in plants and how they grow, where they grow, and what they need to grow well. I'm currently in the middle of my master's degree program in horticulture. I should be done with my master's degree sometime in 2008.
What motivated you to pursue your career?
I lived in Hawaii (on the island of Oahu) when I was very young and remember being totally enchanted by the orchids and the ferns everywhere I went. I wanted to know more and to learn how to take care of these kinds of plants, but was intimidated by the amount of chemistry, so I delayed my passion for a couple decades.
Briefly tell about the life experiences that made it possible for you to work under a NASA fellowship.
When I returned to college to pursue my passion for plants, I saw a hydroponic table set up but not in operation. I ran around the Horticulture Building asking questions about who was working with it and, after a couple weeks of bugging the faculty, I landed an independent study project working with hydroponic basil. I had no clear idea of what to do, but I knew I wanted to learn this technique of growing plants. Out of that project and my heavy obsession with the process, I showed my dedication to this craft and was offered the chance to apply for the GSRP fellowship.
What was the most important experience that prepared you for your job?
Sheer determination. I don't have a lot of scientific background and experience, but I have a lot of determination and passion to make up for lost time. I've taken extra courses to get that background information in chemistry and other science classes, in addition to my regular course load. I read a lot of extra textbooks to catch up with my peers. It's not easy, but it's worth it because it's a big dream of mine to be a horticulturalist who makes a tangible and genuine difference.
What's the coolest thing about what you're doing?
The coolest thing about being a graduate student is having the ability to think on my own without a professor looking over my shoulder all of the time. I can develop my own experiments and solutions to problems that invariably arise in those experiments. I can ask questions of the faculty here at the university and can get help when I get really stuck too. I am very grateful for the sense of independence, and this has been enhanced with the GSRP fellowship. Overall, though, the absolute best thing about my job is knowing that my work will eventually make a real difference for people here on Earth, as well as in space.
Describe your role in plant research.
My role in plant research is to figure out which cultivars of basil will do best in a controlled environment, and what levels of nutrition will be best for these basil plants.
Please comment on the difficulties of living and working in space.
Living and working in space is very difficult because of the limitations of everything from food, to water, to light, and to elbow room. You can't just go out to the store or to the garden when you run out of, say, lettuce or clean drinking water. You've got to transport literally everything with you when you travel to space, and these products can be heavy and bulky, making it very expensive. Living and working in space can be very stressful, too, in that you aren't able to simply take a walk and smell the grass, leaves, and flowers outside because there isn't an "outside." Psychologically, living and working in space can be difficult in that you tend to feel very isolated and very, very homesick.
Why do you think plant research is important to the success of space exploration?
Plant research is important to the success of space exploration because plants can keep humans and other organisms alive, to put it simply. Without plants on long-duration missions, we would not have food to eat, our air would not be safe to breathe, and our spirits would suffer for lack of being around something green and alive.
Knowing which plants clean the air the best will help extend space missions because less energy inputs would be needed for machines to clean the air.
These same plants may be used to feed the crew too. Plants are an essential part of the life cycle of every single organism here on Earth, and will be even more essential up in space.
Because plant growth will be an important part of space exploration in the future, plant researchers like Angela Beaman are working today to learn what they need to know to make growing plants in space possible.
Angela was featured in the NASA Student Opportunities Podcast in May 2007. Listen as she describes her work.
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Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services