The University of Toledo: Collaborations help change the world – and beyond

11/12/2013

Youth are sometimes chastised for having their heads in the clouds, but five University of Toledo students’ limitless imaginations could help mankind reach beyond the stars.

The students – Michael Baker, Lina Elsamaloty, Michael Gammo, Marcel Ingels and Tyler Kinner – major in biology, chemistry and engineering disciplines within UT’s Jesup Scott Honors College. When presented with a challenge from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), all were drawn to the opportunity to collaborate with the world-renowned agency.

“As I understand it, NASA’s goal is to send astronauts beyond the lower Earth orbit to planets like Mars within the next 20 years,” said Ingels, a self-described “space geek” who jumped aboard this mission within minutes of the offer. “To do that, NASA needed to look at some of the medical gaps that exist when you’re considering sending astronauts on prolonged missions further into space.”

Artificially oxygenating an enclosed environment is one such concern. With the full cooperation of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, which develops innovative technology for aeronautics and spaceflight, the team is designing a supplemental oxygen flow regulator that could enhance the safety of astronauts’ future journeys.

“As NASA prepares for long-duration space missions that will travel far beyond low Earth orbit, the issue of maintaining astronaut health looms large,” said Kelly Gilkey, the group’s mentor from NASA Glenn Research Center. “The UT team has chosen to focus on developing part of a supplemental oxygen system for crew members while minimizing cabin oxygen build-up, which can become a significant fire hazard. The University Capstone program provides a unique opportunity for students to design, build and test a prototype that will potentially solve a need for NASA.”

The team’s device, if proven effective, would be part of astronauts’ oxygen modulation systems. The students meet with NASA officials weekly, exchanging ideas and gaining specifications regarding current equipment, and plan to test prototypes early next year.

“It’s been valuable to realize how much engineering and science are involved in astronauts’ safety,” Ingels said. “So much goes into the logistics of space travel that it’s easy to forget if something goes wrong with vital processes linked to the sciences, astronauts could die.”

Safety is a common thread for another group of UT students using their academic skills to improve the world. Several undergraduates from the College of Engineering have traveled to Los Sanchez, Honduras, to assist a small community with challenges relating to water.

A few years ago, said Dale Schiefer, vice president of projects for UT’s Engineers Without Borders chapter, students facilitated the construction of a gravity-fed water distribution system to provide fresh water for about 100 villagers.

At present, the students and their mentors are working diligently to design a bridge to provide safe passage across the Rio Buscagua, a river that separates Los Sanchez from the nearby town.

“In the dry season, the river is shallow and easily crossed,” Schiefer said. “But during the rainy season, the river swells to about 120 feet from one side to the other with a strong current. Crossing it can literally be life-threatening. It separates the children from their school and many adults from their jobs.”

For the past year, the student chapter has worked on a bridge design and traveled to Honduras to reassess the site. Community members will assist with construction, which is expected to take place this spring.

Schiefer, who expects to graduate just as the bridge takes shape, said the chapter’s altruistic collaborations will continue with a new slate of officers and projects.