Episode 36: Al Mofrad

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Episode 36: Al Mofrad
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This episode is a part of the NASA
Student Opportunities podcast series.

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Show Notes

Special Guest: Al Mofrad, NASA education associate

(0:00) Intro

(0:20) The application deadline for the 2008 CanSat Competition  → is Oct. 31, 2007.

(1:11) The nationwide tour of POLAR-PALOOZA  → is under way.

(2:15) Interview with Al Mofrad. San Jose State University graduate Al Mofrad explains how research he conducted as a NASA education associate helped him earn his master's degree in biology.

          NASA Education Associates  →

(12:27) End

Send your comments or questions to: educationpodcast@nasa.gov

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Deana Nunley: This is NASA Student Opportunities -- a podcast connecting high school and college students with learning opportunities inside America's space agency.

Episode 36. Oct. 24, 2007. I'm Deana Nunley.

The American Astronautical Society and American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics have organized a small-satellite competition for university students.

The 2008 CanSat Competition offers university teams the opportunity to design, build and launch small satellites the size of a soda can. The can satellite, or CanSat, must meet certain size, cost and performance requirements. The competition is open to university students from the United States, Canada and Mexico.

In June 2008, teams will compete against each other for cash prizes. Applications are due Oct. 31, 2007.

For more information about the CanSat Competition, go to www.nasa.gov/podcast. Click on the NASA Student Opportunities podcast, and follow the link in this week's show notes.

The nationwide tour of POLAR-PALOOZA kicks off this month with stops planned in California, New Mexico, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana before the end of the year.

POLAR-PALOOZA brings polar research to life with high-energy tales of science and adventure told by a charismatic cast of characters, using high-definition video and authentic props such as a piece of ice core that is 2,000 years old and a caribou parka. In celebration of the International Polar Year, polar researchers and Arctic residents will visit science centers and natural history museums throughout 2007 and 2008. They will be sharing personal tales about living and working at Earth’s poles.

The event will offer special programs for schools, workshops for K-12 educators and museum volunteers, and camp-ins for Girl Scouts and Boys and Girls Clubs at each stop.

For more information about POLAR-PALOOZA, including videos and tour dates, check out this week's show notes. Go to www.nasa.gov/podcast and click on the NASA Student Opportunities podcast.


Al Mofrad graduated in August 2007 from San Jose State University. He earned a master's degree in biology with a concentration in physiology. His master's thesis was based on research work he did at NASA Ames Research Center as part of the Education Associates project. His NASA sponsor, Dr. Richard Boyle, served on his thesis committee and helped him successfully defend his thesis. Al is working at NASA Ames and plans to apply to medical or dental school in the near future.

Could you describe the projects you've been involved with as an education associate?

Al Mofrad: When I first started, I didn't have the graduate program in mind. I was actually taking it as a summer internship. But I started off with helping out in the lab with sectioning tissue, slicing it into thin pieces with specialized equipment; staining tissue to be able to see it under a light microscope; and helping out in the lab just with daily tasks.

As I got acquainted with the lab environment, I took on a separate project which I started, and it turned into a master's project. The master's project was reconstructing the enervation in an organ called the utricle, which is a part of the balance system of the body that's inside the inner ear.

Deana: So your NASA experience has tied in very closely with your educational studies?

Al: It has. At San Jose State, I was a biology major as an undergraduate and my concentration was in physiology. I was exposed a little bit to the inner ear; its physiology; how we use it in our daily lives reflexively to mediate posture and balance as an orientation detector for us to have a sense of how we're oriented in space when we're in a certain position; and also for us to sense accelerations as rotations or linear accelerations in three dimensions.

I was exposed to it a little bit in school, and then once I came here, I had to dive into the literature and piece together studies that actually contribute to this entire picture that we have of how it works and the different pieces of it. Yes, I definitely had to apply what I had learned in school. So that's what was really cool about it also.

Deana: I understand that your master's thesis is based on the research work that you did as an education associate.

Al: That's correct.

Deana: Is it unique to get to use NASA-based research for a thesis or dissertation?

Al: Oh, absolutely. I feel it was a real privilege. For lack of a better word, it was awesome. The equipment that I used was sophisticated and expensive. It wouldn't be accessible to me if I were just to do research at San Jose State. It's unique in that aspect. It's unique also in that the colleagues that I work with are very knowledgeable. My principal investigator is an expert in the field. The others -- lab mates -- are also experts in what they do. The relationships that I've formed, the knowledge that I've gained, the techniques that I've also gained -- I think they're unique and regardless of what I plan to do in the future, it's going to help me out in some way.

Deana: Early on as a biology major, did you envision working with the space agency to do your research?

Al: Absolutely not. I was playing it by ear when I was going through undergrad. I knew that I had an interest in biology and in science. But the opportunity came out of the Internet. It didn't come out of the blue. It came out of the Internet. So when I was searching for internships, I saw this opportunity and I pursued it.

Deana: How do you see the application of the type of research that you're doing in terms of space exploration?

Al: Astronauts, when they go out to space, the first couple of days they experience something called space adaptation syndrome, where they experience symptoms similar to that of humans as in motion sickness, as in when they're in a car -- carsickness, seasickness, or vertigo. One experience is the surroundings moving when they're static, or they experience themselves moving, when they actually aren't.

This affects a lot of things: cognition, being able to move, and basic tasks. It's very disabling. So in order to get a better grasp of how this works and begin a path on treating this, fundamental aspects about the vestibular system need to be described in more depth. So my project had to do with one of the first steps in the transduction of the mechanical stimulus that stimulates the vestibular organ into electrical impulses that are transmitted to the central nervous system and integrated into a signal that gives us perception of three-dimensional movement.

In a nutshell, my research had to do with getting a better idea of how the vestibular system works, so that we get a better idea of how that disorientation that astronauts perceive, how we can treat that and how that works also. It also applies to different complications of the vestibular system, such as Mnire's disease, which is experienced by humans, and benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, which are also debilitating and affect daily normal function as well.

Deana: During the course of your research, did you make any significant discoveries?

Al: Significant in my realm, in my little niche, yes. But nothing ground-shaking. The part of the vestibular system that I studied is called the utricle, and that senses acceleration in the horizontal plane. So if you were to walk on the ground straight forward or backward, or laterally, the utricle would sense that motion.

The utricle is a patch of cells, and they have specializations that allow it to sense movement in the horizontal plane. Also, these hair cells are innervated by afferent neurons. My job was to characterize how these afferent neurons came and contacted these hair cells in different regions of the utricle. So I partitioned the utricle in a certain way and characterized the patterns of innervation in different regions.

What I found was that different regions of the utricle had different innervations. And that discovery, [laughter] if you want to call it, suggests that different regions may be more sensitive to vestibular stimuli, so that certain regions may be more important in sensing horizontal or linear accelerations in the horizontal plane. It wasn't ground-shaking or anything crazy significant, but it was a finding, and in my world, I think that's pretty cool.

Deana: What do you take away from your NASA experience that you expect to help you for years to come?

Al: Most importantly, it's the friendships that I forged with my lab mates and my principal investigator, my thesis committee members. They're all very great people, very knowledgeable. They have certainly helped me out with the learning process of the theory and the techniques.

Besides the friendships, it's the practical skills that I've learned with learning how to use various [pieces of] equipment in the lab; learning to disseminate the literature, the vast amounts of studies that have been done on the vestibular system; [and] being able to pick apart these studies and analyze them and piece them together in a larger framework. That in itself is a task that will definitely help me out regardless of what I pursue in the future. My analytical skills have been improved. I think all of those will be very significant factors contributing to what I do in the future, regardless of what I pursue.

Deana: Do you have any advice -- any tips or suggestions -- for students that might be considering NASA learning opportunities?

Al: One piece of advice would be to pursue a field that they have a genuine interest for. Much of research seems glamorous from the outside, if I may. If you're looking at results, they may look very cool. But to get there, the journey may be tedious and time-consuming.

One has to be very self-motivated. And that self-motivation, for me, would come from an interest of pursuing that field and having that desire to increase your knowledge in whatever you're interested in. So that would be the main piece of advice. Regardless of what you do, I think having that genuine interest for it is most important.

Deana: Education associate Al Mofrad. The Education Associates project is open to students and faculty members at accredited U.S. colleges or universities, postdoctoral students and active K-12 teachers. Internships run from two to 12 months and can start and stop at any time. For more information, go to www.nasa.gov/podcast. Click on the NASA Student Opportunities podcast, and check out this week's show notes.

We want to hear from you. If you have any questions or comments about NASA learning opportunities, send an e-mail to: educationpodcast@nasa.gov

Thanks for listening.

NASA Student Opportunities is a podcast production of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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