Category Archives: Research

Weightless Wonders: Students Perform Experiments in NASA’s Zero-Gravity Simulator

This summer, a team of four Northwestern students got the chance to conduct experiments like they were in outer space without ever leaving Earth’s atmosphere by flying in NASA’s famous “Weightless Wonder.” The undergraduate group, assisted by David Dunand, the James N. and Margie M. Krebs Professor of Materials Science, and the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern, hopes their experiments, if successful, could lead to better solar cell production for greener power on Earth and, eventually, in Earth’s orbit and beyond. Kristen Scotti, a School of Professional Studies biology major, led the group. She recounts her long journey to microgravity flight.

“Float like an astronaut and fly like a superhero” is the tagline used by Zero G Corporation to describe the experience of parabolic flight.

I might add, “Fall like a meteorite hitting Earth,” somewhere in between floating and flying.

A microgravity flight consists of a series of parabolic maneuvers or flying in a trajectory shaped like a parabola. Each begins with 20 seconds of hypergravity, followed by approximately 25 seconds of microgravity. It ends with an additional period of hypergravity.

The final hypergravity portion is immediate. In an instant, you go from floating in the air to slamming into the floor at a rate of about 17.64 m/s2. It only takes a few parabolas before you learn to prepare yourself for the fall.

My journey goes back to 2011, when I was attending classes at William Rainey Harper College and was selected as a NASA Aerospace Scholar, earning an internship at Marshall Space Flight Center. My first NASA flight was a year later.

Visiting Marshall was one of those life-changing moments, where once you get a taste for something, there’s no going back. I was surrounded with like-minded students and NASA personnel who were motivated purely by their desire to learn.

Some of the other Aerospace Scholars and I decided to form a team and propose an experiment to NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Program. Surprisingly, our proposal was accepted. We began our experimental flight preparations. This was my first experience managing a research team.

It was then I transferred to Northwestern University with the assistance of a Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. Once at NU, I reached out to Dr. David Dunand and Dr. Bryce Tappan (Los Alamos National Laboratory) for guidance.

A few months later, a mentor at NASA advised me of an opportunity to propose a program to NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. I reached out to Dr. Dunand and Dr. Tappan again, and with their agreement to continue to offer guidance, I felt confident enough to give it a shot.

I compiled a team of NU undergraduate students, and we submitted our proposal to create titania foams as electrode materials for dye-sensitized solar cells in microgravity. Nearly a year later, our proposal was accepted by NASA as both a knowledge and a technological advancement payload.

In other words, our experiment served two purposes: to understand the effects of gravity during metal foam formation and to enhance the material properties for maximum efficiency in dye-sensitized solar cell applications.

This past July in Ellington, my experimental preparation felt very different. I had a bit more experience, so I knew what to expect; I felt I’d be better able to prepare myself for the falls.

Our team integrated students from three schools within Northwestern: Kimberly Clinch (McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science), Emily Northard (McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science), Felicia Teller (School of Professional Studies) and myself. As a team, we armed ourselves with knowledge as we immersed ourselves in literature, bounced ideas off of each other, solved problems and genuinely respected one another for our individual strengths.

When we hit a trough, we worked together to soften the fall.

Visiting NASA has always provided me with new vigor and desire to learn. NASA is the epitome of passion, commitment and the joining efforts of individuals in the pursuit of knowledge. Our team flew four flights in July; I was on three of them.

I left Houston feeling very proud of the team that I was a part of and excited to continue working with them over the next year analyzing our samples and incorporating them to improve overall efficiencies.

Lives of NU scientist and actresses collide for play

DuncanFrancesca E. Duncan, research assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, recently met with two actresses and a director preparing for the Chicago run of an upcoming play about female scientists. Duncan, director Keira Fromm and actresses Janet Ulrich Brooks and Elizabeth Ledo reflect on the experience of exploring Duncan’s world for artistic purposes.

Two actresses in a new production of Sarah Treem’s play, “The How and the Why,” wanted to pick Teresa Woodruff’s brain about being a female scientist. But Teresa, a leader in women’s reproductive research and director of the Women’s Health Research Institute at Feinberg, was booked. As a scientist in her lab, I snagged the assignment. But I wondered, “What could they possibly gain from me?”

That evening I opened the play’s script on my computer. I couldn’t stop reading. This play—about two female biologists—understood my life. It captured the essence and tumultuous emotions of being a burgeoning scientist in biomedical research. I identified with the naïve hubris of a young graduate student when starting his or her scientific career, the reluctance to hear constructive criticism about a hypothesis that one has devoted endless hours to craft and feeling devastated when new ideas are squashed at international meetings by scientific leaders.

This play also underscored the necessity of strong mentors to “grandmother” the next generation of scientists in the academic pipeline. Being successful in science is not easy. Every trainee needs a committed mentor to be a strong advocate, to provide unique opportunities, to be patient with mistakes and to be a tangible reminder of what it means to always stay in the game. This play nailed the evolution of a scientist from an emotional fledgling student into a confident inspirational leader. I couldn’t wait to show the actresses my world.

I met with director Keira Fromm and actresses Janet Ulrich Brooks and Elizabeth Ledo, who play Zelda and Rachel, respectively, in the TimeLine Theatre play. “Do you really get passionate about your work?” they asked me.

Science is 99.5 percent failure and .5 percent success, I explained. If you don’t have passion, you can’t survive.

Then, I gave the actresses a tour of our lab. They were impressed with the environment where we spend so many hours surrounded by glassware, chemicals, equipment and other scientists. Janet and Elizabeth explored every detail as they absorbed their roles. I showed them a microscope we use for microinjecting cells, and there was a note left nearby—scribbled in frustration—on a pad of paper that read, “If the machine is working correctly, the membrane should POP!!!!” The word “pop” was circled and underlined three times in red, striking a chord with Elizabeth, who commented on the emotional intensity packed into those three letters…P-O-P. At that moment, I could see in their eyes that the science world was demystified and now defined by its own tangible cast, set and plot twists.

From actress Janet Ulrich Brooks (Zelda Kahn):

I believe there is such a strong link between the artistry of science and the science of artistry. Our visit to Northwestern supported my feeling that we share a similar passion for mining truth. The opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with Francesca and tour the lab was invaluable research, which helped deepen the truth in our production. The devil is in the details — and our visit added specificity to the backstory of my character, adding a level of confidence to my performance. I’m so thankful to Francesca for being so open and candid. The experience was invaluable, and I believe our process made great leaps forward after returning from Northwestern.

From actress Elizabeth Ledo (Rachel Hardeman):

Getting an opportunity to go into the lab was a thrill. There was this energy of focus and calm, so to learn that a few hours prior to our visit one of the researchers had had a bit of a meltdown was a reminder that human behavior is human behavior. Whether you’re a scientist spending hours looking into a microscope or an actor throwing yourself into the psyche and emotional world of a character, we all get pushed to the brink and can lose composure. It was very refreshing to me.

From director Keira Fromm:

There’s nothing more edifying than context. As theater artists we spend much of our time cultivating our collective imagination. Informed by the research we can do online, in a library or via knowledgeable friends or family, we make inferences about character, story and environment. These inferences don’t always provide a complete picture—particularly when the character, story or environment relates to a field as dense and elusive as the hard sciences. Meeting with Francesca, talking about the women’s health issues she’s been at work on and touring the lab at Northwestern allowed us the chance to see science in action and context. Touring the lab and crossing paths with the female scientists we met along the way allowed our actresses (Elizabeth and Janet) to fully see themselves (as the scientists they portray) in this world. I know that it was a grounding experience for us as we moved into performances at TimeLine Theatre Company.

The TimeLine Theatre production of “The How and The Why” runs through April 6. For more information:


Photo by Lara Goetsch


8 Tips for Marathon Runners from Northwestern Medicine

George ChiampasNorthwestern University will have a strong presence at this weekend’s 36th Bank of America Chicago Marathon, as George Chiampas, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine, will serve as the Marathon’s medical director for the seventh consecutive year.

He is also an emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and will lead more than 1,400 medical volunteers from numerous hospitals and healthcare schools statewide to oversee the health of race runners.

Chiampas offers eight tips to help runners have a healthy marathon experience:

1. Eat smart
Preparation starts well before you step up to the starting line. Pre-race nutrition is critical, as the 26.2 mile run drains the body’s resources. During the 48-72 hours and evening before the race, enjoy a meal full of protein and carbohydrates and do not consume alcoholic beverages.

2. Get a good night’s sleep
Make sure to follow a regular sleep schedule during the week leading up to the race in order to get plenty of rest. This will guarantee you are well-rested in case pre-marathon jitters prevent you from sleeping the night before the big race.

3. Check the weather
Chicago meteorologists are predicting cool temperatures for this year’s race. Although it may feel cooler in the morning, it will feel 10 or more degrees warmer once you get going, and temperatures will rise throughout the day. Make sure to dress in layers so you’re able to shed clothing as needed. Participants should listen for the Event Alert System (EAS) tips that will be sent out via the Marathon with instructions if the weather becomes dangerous.

4. Benefit from breakfast
About two hours before your start time, eat a high protein breakfast combined with a good balance of carbohydrates and fat, while avoiding sugary foods.

5. Stick with what you know
One of the biggest mistakes marathoners make is trying to change their routines on race day. It’s best to stay with what’s familiar. Wear clothes and shoes you’ve worn on long runs before and don’t try any new foods or drinks.

6. Pace yourself
The excitement of the race can often cause racers to get off to a faster start. This will hinder a runner’s performance and can lead to health issues during the competition. Instead, running at an even pace is most efficient and safest, but be prepared to adjust your pace if weather conditions change.

7. Hydrate appropriately
Both dehydration and over-hydration can pose serious threats to runners. Hyponatermia, a condition that occurs when fluid intake exceeds your rate of fluid loss from sweating, results in abnormally low blood-sodium levels. When this happens, the body’s water levels rise and cells begin to swell. Race participants who experience symptoms of nausea, dizziness or disorientation should seek medical attention immediately.

8. Post-race routine
After crossing the finish line, you’re still not quite finished. Be sure to stretch thoroughly and ice any areas that are sore. While you celebrate your accomplishment, eat a meal that is high in protein to help repair muscle damage and start your recovery phase.

Good luck to all the participants, especially those from our Northwestern community! Read more about Chiampas’ experience working with the Chicago Marathon.