The Charger Blog

Faculty, Students Collaborate on Innovative Grant-Supported Research

Nearly a dozen Chargers have received grants or scholarships from the NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium that will support their cutting-edge research, create important educational opportunities, and, possibly, lead to exciting scientific discoveries.

July 27, 2023

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Abigail Urbina ’24 M.S., Anais Gardere ’24 M.S., Dr. Anna Kloc, Sagar Bhatta ’23 M.S., Aravinda Pentela ’24 M.S.
Abigail Urbina ’24 M.S., Anais Gardere ’24 M.S., Dr. Anna Kloc, Sagar Bhatta ’23 M.S., Aravinda Pentela ’24 M.S.

For Katie Durkee ’24 M.S., the opportunities she’s had to conduct research have enabled her to pursue her interests and discover new passions. A strong believer in the ability of research to help yield new discoveries, she hopes her own work can play an important role in furthering knowledge and innovation on Earth – and beyond.

Katie Durkee ’24 M.S.
Katie Durkee ’24 M.S.

Durkee is reaching for the stars with her research, which was recently awarded a graduate research grant from the NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium (CTSGC). Her project explores the development of self-healing polymers from biomass (organic) resources for space-related applications. Petroleum resources are currently used to generate polymers, she explains, and these are expected to become increasingly depleted in the coming decades.

The polymers, Durkee hopes, could eventually be used in space-related applications – perhaps even assisting NASA with a mission to Mars. They could, for example, potentially be used help protect astronauts from harmful radiation.

“It’s an honor to be selected for such a prestigious award that will assist me with advancing my knowledge in polymer chemistry and, ultimately, support me and my future career goals,” said Durkee, a candidate in the University’s graduate program in chemistry. “Even though my research will focus primarily on using these polymers for space applications, generating a polymer from a natural source could have significant impacts on society.”

‘Our students hold unlimited potential’

As part of her research, Durkee will be working with her mentor Hao Sun, Ph.D., who was among the recipients of CTSGC’s faculty research grants. It is the second external research grant Dr. Sun has received since joining the University in Fall 2021. He was the first University professor to earn the highly competitive Undergraduate New Investigator Grant from the American Chemical Society's Petroleum Research Fund.

Hao Sun
Hao Sun, Ph.D., in his research lab.

The CTSGC award will support Dr. Sun’s work that also focuses on developing self-healing polymer materials with radiation resistance. Because the lifetime of such materials would be significantly compromised by high-frequency radiation, he hopes to develop materials that could repair themselves while also resisting ionizing radiation. Dr. Sun hopes they could be used to build everything from spacecrafts to satellites while also helping to protect astronauts.

The grant will enable Dr. Sun to work with and mentor students such as Durkee in the laboratory, where they will learn to analyze and process data, present their findings, and write scholarly research papers. The funding will also enable them to attend and present their work at an annual conference.

“Through the teaching and research activities I am involved in at the University, I am quite impressed by the creativity, teamwork spirit, and hard-working nature of our students,” said Dr. Sun, founder of the Advanced Polymer Research Lab at the University. “I have no doubt that our students hold unlimited potential for their successful careers in the near future. My goal as an educator is to provide our students a powerful research platform to help them prepare for their future success.”

Supporting early-career scientists

Dr. Sun is among half a dozen faculty members at the University to receive a grant from CTSGC. Fewer than two dozen professors from schools across the state received the prestigious awards. Anna Kloc, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biology, was among them. She, too, is excited about the opportunities the grant will create for her students, who will be directly involved in her project. She expects them to learn how to perform experiments, analyze data, and write scientific manuscripts. She hopes the experience will help them “develop into scientists.”

Dr. Kloc’s work explores how the Epstein-Barr virus, a pathogen that affects a large number of people around the globe, contributes to heart inflammation. The virus, she explains, is reactivated in astronauts during space travel. She hopes to learn about the molecular networks involved when the heart responds to the infection, which can cause life-threatening inflammation of the cardiac muscle. Because this disease process is not yet fully understood, she hopes her research will yield better predictions of the outcomes of viral infections, as well as new treatments that could minimize the chances of developing heart inflammation.

“I am grateful that the CTSGC supports early-career scientists,” said Dr. Kloc. “These grants are so important for generating scientific data and securing more research funding. This research is important to better understand how viruses cause human heart disease.”

‘Part of my long-term research objective’

Funded as a part of NASA Education, CTSGC is a federally mandated grant, internship, and scholarship program that endeavors to inspire individuals to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, especially those who have traditionally been underrepresented within these fields. There are Space Grant Consortia in all 50 states, as well as in Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico.

Huan Gu, Ph.D., received a faculty research grant from CTSGC.
Huan Gu, Ph.D., received a faculty research grant from CTSGC.

Dedicated to contributing to Connecticut’s economy and STEM pipeline, CTSGC also supports research opportunities, educational initiatives, and workforce development, and the research grants are intended to support these priorities.

Huan Gu, Ph.D., an assistant professor of chemical engineering who also earned a faculty research grant, is excited to be working with students on her proposed project. They will evaluate the impact of microgravity on Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus), and they will study how it affects the virulence and antibiotic susceptibility of the pathogen.

Dr. Gu describes the pathogen, which is part of the microbiome of astronauts, as “opportunistic,” since it adapts to changes in gravity during space travel. Astronauts are more susceptible to persistent skin infections because of the skin-thinning that takes place during space travel, says Dr. Gu. She hopes her work will lead to better strategies for controlling the infections associated with the pathogen during space travel, as well as the problems it can cause on Earth.

“This project is part of my long-term research objective, which is to engineer soft and living materials,” said Dr. Gu. “I am specifically focused on bacterial biofilms for medical and industrial applications. I will use the results obtained from this award as preliminary data to apply for future funding to achieve my long-term research objective. This award means a lot to me, and I appreciate the support from CTSGC.”

‘A testament to the importance of this research topic’

Shivanjali Khare, Ph.D., an assistant professor of computer science, says receiving one of the faculty research awards was a “significant milestone” in her academic career. The grant supports a project she proposed that is focusing on improving the prediction of anomalies in large datasets generated by NASA missions. Because each subsystem generates data at different rates and resolutions, the resulting data have different granularities. She’s focusing on telemetry datasets, in which each channel of data offers unique information about the system being monitored, including measurements from sensors such as temperature and velocity.

Dr. Khare says the challenge with current anomaly prediction models is that they often classify normal data as anomalous, leading to false positives and, therefore, unnecessary maintenance, repairs, or, even, delays. She hopes her work will help identify the root causes of the anomalies and improve accuracy by reducing these false positivity rates.

Shivanjali Khare
Shivanjali Khare, Ph.D., an assistant professor of computer science

“The impact of this research will be widespread,” she said. “It can lead to improved mission success in NASA missions, reduce maintenance costs, and improve operational efficiency in various industrial operations. Overall, we hope the outcomes will contribute to the development of better anomaly-prediction models and help to enhance the safety and reliability of various systems.”

The project will involve an undergraduate and a graduate student, and Dr. Khare hopes they will gain important research experience while developing valuable data-analysis, anomaly-prediction, and machine-learning skills. She hopes their work will impact myriad industries that rely on anomaly prediction, such as aviation, manufacturing, and healthcare.

“The award is not only a recognition of my efforts and dedication, but also a testament to the importance of this research topic,” she said. “I hope this experience will encourage and motivate students to pursue advanced careers in science and engineering and inspire them to make meaningful contributions to their respective fields.”

Aravinda Pentela, Anais Gardere and Sagar Bhatta, Dr. Kloc’s students, conducting biological research. The grants will create exciting opportunities for such students.
Aravinda Pentela, Anais Gardere and Sagar Bhatta, Dr. Kloc’s students, conducting biological research. The grants will create exciting opportunities for such students.
‘The pride that comes from performing meaningful research’

Dr. Khare’s colleague, Thomas Filburn, Ph.D., a senior lecturer, earned a faculty-student summer research grant. He and his students are updating a NASA life support training primer and class that was created for NASA’s Exploration System Mission Directorate in 2007. The training program was used to teach NASA engineers and their contractors about the requirements and system solutions necessary for keeping people safe – whether they were in a spacesuit or in a space shuttle.

Dr. Filburn, who helped develop the original life-support primer, is mentoring students as they conduct background research on thermal, air, and water systems used in previous NASA missions, as well as what could be used in future missions. They’ll be adding new mission requirements that were not part of the original primer, and they’ll include what has been learned during the more than 15 years of systems experience in the years since it was first created.

“I am very happy to have received this award because it means our students are going to learn firsthand the pride that comes from performing meaningful research,” he said. “I hope the students see the benefits of this applied research, and that it excites them to become lifelong learners. I am hoping they will take the technical, programmatic, and interpersonal skills they’ve gained from this effort to become strong professionals in whatever becomes their chosen field.”

‘Prepare me for my future career’

In addition to the faculty research awards, two students also earned scholarships from the CTSGC. Charlotte Michaud ’26 says she’s very grateful to have received one of the organization’s undergraduate scholarships.

Charlotte Michaud ’26.
Charlotte Michaud ’26.

“Receiving this award eases a financial burden and it'll allow me to continue my education at the University of New Haven with a little bit less stress,” said Michaud, a forensic science major who is planning to pursue a concentration in chemistry. “I also feel very honored to be able to include receiving this award on my growing resume.”

For Durkee, the chemistry graduate student, the award also represents an exciting opportunity to build her skills while conducting research that has the potential to make an important impact. She says it has been exciting to collaborate with Dr. Sun and to continue to develop as a scientist.

“Dr. Sun has been a fantastic mentor throughout the beginning of my research,” she said. “I am so excited to continue to work with him. He has a vast knowledge of polymer synthesis, and I am excited to learn new lab techniques from him. Working with Dr. Sun will help prepare me for my future career.”