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Grad student participates in NASA summer program

Friday, July 22, 2005

A physics student working on Oklahoma State University's development of a radiation sensor for astronauts was part of an international group of researchers chosen to examine deep space travel-related health issues for NASA this summer.

Second-year Ph.D. student Gabriel Sawakuchi was among 15 participants in the 2005 NASA Summer Student program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. Bringing together physicists and biological scientists — and centered on topics such as the effects of deep-space radiation on humans and the dangers of developing cancer during long voyages — the program aims to steer researchers into the emerging field of space radiobiology.

“We need to better understand the effects of ionizing radiation found in long-distance and long-term space flights and how to best shield against it,” said Dr. Marcelo E. Vazquez, medical scientist at Brookhaven Lab and co-director of the NASA Summer Student program. “There is a strong need for scientists dedicated exclusively to this field who will ask the best questions and seek good answers.”

The program is sponsored by NASA and coordinated by Brookhaven Lab, Loma Linda University Medical Center and a consortium of universities, research organizations and governmental agencies called the Universities Space Research Association. Students participate in classroom activities and scientific experiments, working side-by-side with top space scientists. Experimental creativity and interdisciplinary approaches are emphasized.

“One branch of science cannot provide adequate answers to the complex questions raised by space radiation,” Vazquez said. “So we actively seek the most talented investigators and emerging scientists from a range of disciplines who will learn a range of techniques and approaches that will enable them to make an impact in this growing field.”

Sawakuchi is a member of the team of researchers exploring new applications for the radiation sensor pioneered by OSU’s physics department. Under the tutelage of Dr. Eduardo Yukihara, who, along with Dr. Stephen McKeever, oversees activities within OSU’s dosimeter laboratory at the Oklahoma Research and Technology Park, Sawakuchi is helping develop the sensor as a platform for a radiation-detecting device for astronauts.

“My Ph.D. project is related to the development of a device that can detect the complex radiation field found in space,” Sawakuchi said. “In the NASA summer school, the main topic was to understand the effects of radiation on cells and how it is related to mechanisms that may cause damage to DNA.

“Although the main subject of the NASA program was biology, it was a complement to what we’re doing at OSU, and I believe our work on space research here was the main reason I was chosen."

The NASA Summer Student program is now in its second year at Brookhaven Lab’s NASA Space Radiation Laboratory and Medical Department. Studies at the NSRL focus on how radiation can damage the central nervous system and other bodily systems — as well as how the intense rays may promote the development of cancer. NSRL researchers are also looking at ways to protect against these dangers through shielding and other strategies to minimize the risk to space travelers. 

Operational since 2003, the NSRL is one of the few places in the world where the harsh cosmic and solar radiation found in space can be simulated. The lab employs beams of heavy ions extracted from Brookhaven’s booster accelerator, which is considered the best in the United States for studying the effects of radiation on living organisms. Scientists from more than 20 research institutions nationwide and abroad work year-round at the facility to learn about the possible risks to space explorers exposed to deep-space radiation.

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