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Nematode centrifuge project (worms in space)
(Interview segment with Dr. Catharine Conley)

The audio recording is 1 minute and 41 seconds (1:41)

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What is the significance of the worms in space study?


“I think the most important thing about the research that we’re doing with the worms is that we’re exploring the range of life and the range of environments that life can live in. This is sort of an astrobiology question, but it’s also a fundamental biology question and also is relevant to human health. We’re hoping that we by looking at the worms that we’ll be able to identify genes or systems that we can use then to target in humans because worms and humans on a cellular level really aren’t that different. So, a lot of the systems that . . . worms have neurons. Worms have stomach. They have muscles. A lot of those systems in the worm are quite similar to the ones in the humans. So, we think that by studying the worms, we’ll be able to identify places perhaps we can improve astronaut health for humans. That’s one of the major long-term goals. The other one then, would be the astrobiology question of just where can life live. How does Earth life respond when it gets moved off our planet? And, of course, normally when we think of micro-gravities, lower than Earth gravity when you’re asking that question, but we can use hyper-gravity as a model for microgravity, the centrifuge as a model for space flight because there is considerable evidence that, at least, for specific systems -- certain systems -- it’s the change in gravity that makes the difference. So, if you go from Earth gravity up, it’s very similar to going from the Space Shuttle and landing back on Earth. If you then go from the centrifuge at high gravity back to one gravity of Earth -- so, we turn off the centrifuge -- that’s very similar for at least certain systems – for, as having an astronaut going from Earth up in the Shuttle into space flight. So, we’re using this change in gravity as the model for space flight. It doesn’t matter what the G levels are. It’s just if you go up, you go up. If you go down, you go down.”

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How did Harvey Mudd College help you in your worms in space study?

“Harvey Mudd College and the Harvey Mudd students really have a nice system going. This was both very useful for me and my research, and also very educational for the students. Harvey Mudd College has an engineering clinic. So, all the seniors in the engineering school go into this clinic, and they build things for outside clients, I guess you might call them – me, or a company, or an academic institution, or some other government agency needs to have something done. And we want to make sure that we getting the best engineering on it, and we want to have a good engineering team. But, perhaps, we don’t have enough – have the funding to hire a professional agency. So, we can go, then, to this engineering clinic at Harvey Mudd College, and the students, as their senior project, then, with the help of an advisor build – do the engineering to design and then build whatever product or analysis that the client – the outside organization needs.

So, in my case, it was the camera, and I told them that I needed a camera that would go on the centrifuge – that it needed to withstand a hundred G. I had a number of other specifications, and the students really, in and of themselves, in their class – their senior clinic class – came up with the particular designs and the manipulations that they needed to do in order to fulfill the requirements that I gave them.”