Why biomedical engineers should consider microgravity

The Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) annual meeting was held last week, and as would be expected, there were a number of highly enlightening talks from researchers preeminent in the field. However, there was one talk that stood out if for nothing else than its uniqueness – a session from Dr. Donald Pettit, Ph.D. and NASA astronaut. In his talk, he described some of the questions and discoveries that arise from one of the greatest frontiers.

Free fall produces the effects of microgravity. Photo by http://www.photoree.com/photos/permalink/15089034-54636546@N02

Free fall produces the effects of microgravity. Photo by http://www.photoree.com/photos/permalink/15089034-54636546@N02

Microgravity (a.k.a free fall) produces a number of interesting and downright quirky effects in some things we take for granted on Earth; lighting a match literally produces a floating fireball and boiling water decides to ooze out in every direction. While these may seem trivial, Dr. Pettit’s playing around with salt in a bag may have solved a standing question in astronomy of how planetary bodies begin to take form from extremely small particles.

All of which is very interesting, but it doesn’t really have to do with medicine or biology. Still, it got my interest piqued so I killed some time looking at other discoveries made in space, that final frontier. Many people are familiar, for example, with possible problems in bone mass and density after long expeditions in space. However, there are problems even deeper than that. Microgravity can weaken the immune system, while conversely strengthening some bacteria. This could pose a major problem if the native fauna within our bodies, necessary to our survival, start acting up. If this seems unfair to you, it’s not all bad news – some scientists think these effects could have applications in vaccine development.

Here is a NASA link with a more detailed explanation of microgravity.

Jason Lee is a second year Ph.D. student in the Hai-Quan Mao laboratory in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.