Nine URI students awarded prestigious NASA R.I. Space Grants

Grants promote research by graduate, undergraduate students

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 18, 2023 – Nine students at the University of Rhode Island are the recipients of NASA R.I. Space Grants for this summer and/or next fall. The research grants are awarded by the NASA Rhode Island Space Grant Consortium.

Miguel Alessandro Lopez, Aubrey Laity, Julie Maurer, Katie Roche and Michelle Stage were awarded Graduate Student Fellowships, while undergraduates Samantha Adams, Oliver Carey, Charles McInerney and Sophia Motta received research scholarships from the program.

Operating at Brown University since 1991, R.I. Space Grant encourages undergraduate and graduate students to explore NASA-related science research and engineering as careers, uses space-related science as a means of enhancing scientific literacy among educators and their students, and provides seed grants for NASA-related research.

Graduate Fellowships

Lopez of Providence, who holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with minors in nuclear engineering and mathematics from URI, is pursuing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Working with Professor Bahram Nassersharif, Lopez has been part of a capstone design project sponsored by NASA Space Grant and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Over the past year, Lopez and his capstone team researched and designed a test apparatus to simulate a centrifugal nuclear thermal rocket fuel cell with the goal of advancing development of high performance nuclear thermal propulsion systems for interplanetary travel. This summer and fall, Lopez will continue his work, redesigning the experiment to use a low-temperature alloy to study solid-liquid phase transitions under rotation to determine fluid conditions and safety limits, Nassersharif said.

Maurer and Roche will use the grants to continue their work with Bethany Jenkins, professor of cellular and molecular biology and oceanography.

Roche of Syracuse, New York, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in biological oceanography in the Graduate School of Oceanography, will research diatoms’ physiological responses to nutrient limitation in the North Atlantic and carbon export pathways. Diatoms, a type of phytoplankton, are critical to the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, eventually sequestering carbon dioxide in the deep ocean as the phytoplankton die or sink, Roche said. Her work is part of a NASA-led field campaign and multi-institutional collaboration, Export Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing (EXPORTS), which aims to better understand carbon export from the upper ocean.

Maurer of Bellingham, Washington, is a second-year master’s student in biological and environmental sciences, with a specialization in evolutionary and marine biology. In the fall, Maurer will continue her research on the harmful algae Pseudo-nitzschia, looking at the relationship between the algae’s toxicity and associated bacteria in culture and environmental samples from Narragansett Bay.

In response to adverse environmental conditions, Pseudo-nitzschia can produce harmful algae blooms through the production of domoic acid, Maurer said. The neurotoxin can accumulate in shellfish and when consumed cause neurological damage in humans and marine mammals. Using genetic marker genes, Maurer’s research aims to identify the Pseudo-nitzschia species and populations present in the bay samples, with a goal of determining the bacteria that enhances domoic acid production in toxic algae strains and blooms.

Stage of Burnsville, Minnesota, is pursuing a Ph.D. in behavioral sciences, focusing on social psychology and LGBTQ+ health disparities. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and a master’s in health promotion from the University of Kentucky. Working with Professor Mollie Ruben, the grant will enable Stage to focus on improving her abilities in designing, implementing and analyzing participant data to inform policy. Over the summer, she will do qualitative interviews to explore facilitators and barriers to NASA/planetary science careers for LGBTQ+ students in STEM.

“There is a gap in the literature exploring sexual and gender minority students’ perspectives pursuing planetary sciences,” Stage said. “In order to support NASA’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, we must understand how to foster a diverse workforce starting in higher education.”

Aubrey Laity

For Laity, a second-year Ph.D. student in physics, the fellowship will enable her to continue her work with Professor Rob Coyne during the next academic year. Laity of Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Millersville University. Working with Coyne, her research will use gravitational waves to study gamma-ray bursts, which occur during catastrophic events at the end of the life cycles of certain exotic stars. By studying these signals, scientists can understand the remnants of these cataclysmic events and gain further knowledge of the nature of black holes and neutron stars, Laity said.

“Aubrey will be working with me as part of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory Scientific Collaboration to study these exciting events,” Coyne said. “Her work will include applications in high performance computing, theory, and data analysis.”

Research Scholarships

The research grant will allow Adams of Exeter, a juniormajoring in physics, to spend this summer on a project on black holes. Working with Professor Doug Gobielle, Adams will use data observed by a telescope at low frequencies to create images of galaxies in the universe that have active black holes.

“The specific group of sources I am looking at are some of the brightest in the Northern Hemisphere and very well-known to astronomers,” she said. “Unfortunately, the current information about these sources is spread out among many databases and pieces of literature. My goal is to bring it all into one central location for scientific use and to create a table book of images for the general public.”

Carey of Westerly graduates this week from URI with a bachelor’s degree in physics. In the fall, she will pursue a Ph.D. in physics at Brown University. Working with Gobielle this summer, Carey will continue work on her thesis using machine learning and other methods to locate and analyze active galactic nuclei that may exhibit X-ray emissions within their jets.

“By studying these energy mechanisms within the jets, we can get a closer look into the nuclei jet properties of the early universe, enabling us to better understand its composition, formatting and fate,” Carey said.

McInerney of Cranston is a junior majoring in geology. Through the award, he will continue his work in the water quality lab run by Soni Pradhanang, an associate professor in geosciences. This summer, he will collect and analyze water samples from ponds in Roger Williams Park in Providence, using UV-visible spectroscopy and ion chromatography to monitor harmful algae blooms. The data he collects will be used to validate data assets gathered by NASA satellites.

“The data I collect will provide another frame of reference for state authorities like the Department of Environmental Management in their efforts to minimize public exposure to cyanotoxins created by the blooms and will assist in efforts to prevent the blooms from occurring,” he said. 

In Pradhanang’s lab, Motta of West Greenwich, a junior geology major, has been involved in saltwater intrusion research in the field and conducting data analysis. Last summer, she was selected as a URI Coastal and Environmental Fellow and worked on a project conducting a geophysical survey and mapping of coastal hydrogeology as part of the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program.

This summer, Motta will lead a lead a team using electrical resistivity tomography to conduct field surveys in areas in Southern Rhode Island where groundwater and fresh drinking water are vulnerable to saltwater intrusion. Like McInerney’s project, data that Motta collects will be used to validate satellite imagery.

“The saltwater-freshwater boundary can be affected by sea level, tides, human activities, extreme weather events, and, of course, climate change, potentially causing contamination of freshwater sources,” said Motta. “There is minimal research on the severity of saltwater intrusion in Southern Rhode Island. It is vital to understand the risks our groundwater faces.”