NASA-HUNCH Mentor Memoir: Dr. Jennifer Nass-Fukai
Thermo Fisher Scientific is committed to inspiring the next generation of scientists, so for the last two years, the Molecular Spectroscopy business unit’s NMR technology group has sponsored Overland High School’s NASA-HUNCH (National Aeronautics and Space Administration-High schools United with NASA to Create Hardware Extreme Science) program. As part of the HUNCH program, the Thermo Scientific™ picoSpin™ NMR spectrometer was used in a series of successful student lead microgravity experiments investigating the viability of Magnetic Resonance techniques on orbit.
As it turns out, this program also inspires teachers. Dr. Jennifer Nass-Fukai is the Science Department Coordinator, biology teacher, and this year’s Overland, NASA-HUNCH mentor. What follows is her account of this year’s flight week April 4th-10th at Johnson Space Center and Ellington Field.
So, what’s it like to work with NASA? This is not a question I ever imagined being asked. As a high school biology teacher, I always figured the closest I would get to the world of astronauts was watching the Discovery Channel or sitting through the latest science fiction movie. Imagine my delight when I was offered the opportunity to be part of the NASA HUNCH program, working with NASA scientists to develop real research with real applications in the space program!
Overland High School has been a part of this amazing program for 3 years now, and both the students and I have learned a tremendous amount, not only about the engineering design process and our particular research, but also about the tremendous amount of detailed work that must go into everything that NASA is involved with. For the first time, this year I was able to see this level of detail in action as I accompanied the students to Ellington Field in Houston, TX where they were able to fly their experiment on the “Weightless Wonder” Zero-Gravity plane.
Our trip was scheduled for the first week of April, and the first hurdle was trying to ensure that the students and I not only packed appropriate personal items, but also had everything along that we might possibly need to set up what amounted to a mobile lab in our hotel room. It’s amazing how you can get used to having all of your assorted tools on hand when you work in a well-equipped high school science lab – now imagine trying to make sure you have everything along with you because you can’t just “run into the prep room” to grab something you forgot. Got it? Now imagine trying to figure out how to pack all of that stuff in a way that will keep it all protected and not send the airport security folks into a tailspin. I’m here to tell you, this is not easy. All in all we did ok, with the only issue we encountered being the necessity of multiple explanations of why our laptop was covered in duct tape and Velcro®.
After several hours of travel we finally arrived in Houston and headed to the hotel to get set up and settled. We unpacked all of the equipment, which thankfully arrived in one piece, and warned the hotel management that our rooms would be looking a little “unconventional” to the housekeeping service, before heading out for a festive “Welcome to Houston” pizza dinner. As it turned out this would be the last relaxed evening we would have for a while.
Starting bright and very early the next morning we took a bus out to Ellington Field and began our initiation into all things NASA. The schedule was tight, as was the security, and it became clear very quickly that although this program was for high school students, they were expected to fit into the same mold as all of the existing NASA scientists. It was amazing to watch my teen-aged research team rise to the occasion! In between briefings, orientation tours, and work with our experiment, we were also able to network with other schools, meeting extraordinary and passionate young scientists from all over the country.
Back at the hotel that evening we began what was to become a daily ritual for the trip, working with our transported equipment well into each night to fine-tune the experiment. Each problem we encountered was solved with remarkable team effort and innovative thinking and we would finally go to bed exhausted but satisfied only to get up the next morning and do it all again. My role became something of a cheerleader/den mother, encouraging the students to look at problems from new perspectives, making design suggestions, and keeping a nearly constant supply of food coming out of the kitchenette in my room and into the team. As we got closer and closer to “flight day” the pressure got even more intense. The students were required to present their experiments to a variety of astronauts and other scientists who evaluated their plans for both efficacy and safety. I could only stand back and watch in awe as my students worked as equals alongside this prestigious company, holding their own in all ways.
When the first flight finally arrived I could only stand and watch with fingers crossed as the first of my students marched across the tarmac to climb into the waiting plane. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted a live video feed of anything more! Was he doing ok? Was he getting motion sickness? Was the experiment working like it was supposed to? What was zero gravity like? Waiting for that plane to come back was a VERY long 2 hours. When we finally were able to debrief with our first flyer we found out that he had a wonderful experience in all things except for the experiment – it didn’t work. We headed back to the hotel that night with a weird mix of excitement, disappointment, and determination. We had one more chance to get usable data and the team was driven to get back to the drawing board and solve the last few problems.
On the second flight day we had two flyers going up and they carried all of our hopes with them. Those of us that remained on the ground were a bundle of nerves and anticipation – would it work this time? If anything, the two hours seemed even longer on this day – we all had trouble sitting still and concentrating on anything other than the thought of what was happening on the flight. Finally the plane returned, and we stood out there waiting on the tarmac to greet our flyers. When our team came off the plane and saw us they shouted “It worked!” – the screaming and hugging that followed is something I’ll never forget.
I have been a science teacher for 15 years, and I’ve never seen anything like the engagement and dedication that I saw from my students in the HUNCH program. This wasn’t about a letter grade, this was about the buy-in that can only be generated by intense, authentic research with both struggles and successes. It was an amazing thing to be a part of. Perhaps the most rewarding comment from a student came at the very end when one of the team told me how upset he was to be graduating because we were “so close” to having our research figured out and with “just another year” he was sure we would have all of the questions answered. I think that’s the ultimate testimonial to the value of programs like this one – the fires of science inspiration for our future have certainly been lit.
Thank you Thermo Fisher Scientific – without your generous support, I never would have been able to offer this amazing experience to my students, and I never would have had the chance to be inspired by the results. Your investment into the scientists of the future is of great benefit to the global community – these students are poised to become the thinkers and problem-solvers into the next generation.
Jenn Nass-Fukai Ph.D.
Overland High School
Additional information about the NASA-HUNCH program can be found by visiting the program website: www.NASAHUNCH.com
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