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Stemming out: Research beyond the classroom

Stemming out: Research beyond the classroom

By Kimberly Cassels

Tuesday, November 13, 2018 | Number of views (703)

Senior seminar students at Fort Lewis College have the opportunity to work on professional projects for the geoscience and biology departments. 

Geoscience students are working with NASA to create a satellite that will measure the water in snowpack on Red Mountain Pass. 

A group of biology students is working on the early stages of the established lung-on-a-chip project, where a small part of the human lung is grown in a lab. The project could eventually result in more efficient medical research. 


This winter, a handful of FLC students will be working with NASA to collect snow density data from snow pits that will eventually be measured from outer space. 

Students will dig snow pits at Senator Beck Basin, a site on Red Mountain Pass, to measure the amount of water in snow. This is called the snow water equivalent, also known as SWE, Andy Gleason, lecturer of geosciences, said. 

“Snow water equivalent is the water yield that you get from melting any volume of snow,” Gleason said. “It’s how much water is in the snowpack basically.”  

Meanwhile, NASA pilots will be flying P-3 Orion and G-3 airplanes overhead and using radar, lidar, thermal infrared, hyperspectral imaging and spectroscopy to take SWE measurements, he said. 

Data collected in the field and from the aircraft will be compared to assess measurement accuracy. Snow density is difficult to measure, so multiple forms of calculation will help with precision, Gleason said. 

NASA’s goal is to create a satellite that will accurately measure Earth’s water supply in snow-covered regions. Snowpack is a natural reservoir which provides 75 percent of the western United States’ water and over 16 percent of the world’s drinking water, Gleason said.  

The satellite would assist water managers to make plans based on the amount of water available for agriculture, reservoirs and dams using hydroelectric power, he said. 

Red Mountain Pass was chosen for the project because the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, located in Silverton, CO, has a well-instrumented research station at the Senator Beck Basin Study Area, Gleason said. 

The San Juan Mountains provide the topographical data necessary for the research NASA needs for developing the satellite later on, he said. 

“There’s been a bunch of work done on arctic terrain where there’s two or three feet of snow and it’s perfectly flat, but there hasn’t been a lot of work done in mountainous terrain or forest terrain,” Gleason said. 

The study began three years ago and will finish in 2020. The research is grant-funded by SnowEx, a campaign through NASA that is using different techniques from aircraft to measure the content of water in snow, Gleason said. 
Students will be measuring the snowpack with traditional methods in the snow pits they manually dig, Gleason said. 

Once they’ve climbed into their snow pits, students must use a variety of tools to calculate the SWE, including a triangular density cutter, a snow crystal card to look at grain size, a microscope, thermometers, rulers, a scale to weigh snow and microprobes for pressure, Gleason said. 

This project is unique in the way that every researcher is required to make the data available to the public. The government’s transparency on this study allows anyone to be informed about its progress, Gleason said. 

Gleason is one of 122 scientists from multiple countries that responded to a call from NASA looking for hydrologists who wanted to be involved in the study, Gleason said. 

Two to three students will join the research team in Senator Beck Basin and are expected to have an avalanche course under their belt for safety, Gleason said. 


Biology students at FLC are in the beginning stages of growing human lung tissue around a silicon membrane. The project is called lung-on-a-chip, David Blake, associate professor of biology, said. 

The goal is to grow an alveolus, an air sac in the lung, to use for biomedical research. It is not the entire organ and will not be implanted in a person, Blake said. 

An engineered alveolus can raise the effectiveness of research for chemical toxicity and drug testing, he said.

“It is a noninvasive device to test the efficacy of different therapies, and in this case, the therapies would be based within the lung,” Blake said. 

The chip is about the size of a quarter and composed of a gel-like material. Inside the chip, delicate channels will act as feeding tubes to keep the cells alive and allow them to communicate with each other to grow on each side of the silicon membrane, he said. 

“It’s essentially a cell sandwich,” Blake said. 

Blake began the project after meeting Jeff Jessing, assistant professor of physics and engineering, who has worked with silicon membranes in organs that have been implanted in people. They will be working on the project together once the membrane has a proven design, Blake said. 

Blake started the project last year with a former senior seminar student, Sophie Mancha. Jacob Evanyo, Randall Hughes and Chance Salaway are the three students working on the project, Blake said.  

When the membrane was constructed at FLC, the channels did not align correctly. Blake’s students will be focused on the device structure until it can be reproduced repeatedly, he said.
“Hypothetically, after we create the device, we would feed one side of it with epithelial cells to mimic the lung, and then the other side of the device we would feed with endothelial cells to mimic a blood vessel,” he said. 

Epithelial cells are the cells that make up organs, such as the skin or liver, while endothelial cells make up a thin layer inside of blood vessels, Blake said.    
The goal is for Jessing to implement a flexible, lifelike material the cells can grow on that will make a respiring movement when air moves through the chip, Blake said.   

The original lung-on-a-chip was constructed in 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania and has also been executed at Harvard University. Blake would like to recreate the device with the thinnest silicon membrane in the field, which would more accurately mimic the way an air sack in the lung moves when one breathes, he said.  

This kind of experiment predominantly uses mice as a test subject. However mice are expensive to maintain while also having fundamental physiological differences to humans, Blake said.    

The National Institute of Health is asking researchers to use animals less for studies, Blake said. 
A lung-on-a-chip would provide a cheaper, faster and more effective alternative than using mice, he said. 
Blake plans to use the lung-on-a-chip to provide data on certain therapeutic options for specific lung infections or how to combat toxins inhaled from the air, he said.  

This form of microfabrication can potentially grow any type of organ for the same purposes, Blake said. 

It is unknown when the lung-on-a-chip will be successfully completed, he said. 


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