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UNH Student is Lost in Space
DURHAM, N.H. -- Nisha Bhatia spent her summer days as a kid jumping out of trees while wearing a toy space helmet. She spent last summer at NASA's Astrobiology Academy, learning how to adapt to life on Mars.

It's been one giant leap from childhood dreams to reality for the University of New Hampshire senior. Thanks to support from the New Hampshire Space Grant Consortium, the Hampstead resident spent 10 weeks at the NASA Ames Research Center, at Moffett Field, near San Francisco.

There Bhatia merged her twin interests of space science and medicine -- she's a pre-med biology major with a double major in English -- through a research project examining how to adapt to life on low-gravity Mars. With a gravity one-thirds that of Earth's, Mars offers unique challenges to future visitors looking forward to leisurely stroll. Bhatia and her team studied the bio-mechanics of walking on the surface of the red planet as well as perceptual adaptation, working on the Mars Gravity Simulator itself.

"I've wanted to be a doctor since I was four years old," she says. "This NASA astrobiology experience has opened up a new field of medical research for me."

The medical side of the Oct. 29 return to space of Mercury Seven hero-astronaut John Glenn is especially intriguing to the honors student.

Since aging and space flight share a number of similar physiological responses -- including bone and muscle loss, balance disorders and sleep disturbances -- NASA researchers will be examining the 77-year-old Glenn's ability to adapt to space travel. They hope the study of space flight may provide a model system to help scientists interested in understanding aging.

Bhatia points out: "There are a lot of medical questions related to space travel. You could do surgery, you could take Tylenol, but no one knows the full effects of either.

"I admire John Glenn for going back up," she says. "That's what I like most about NASA -- everyone is so passionate about what they do."

Her experience at the summer academy has given her life skills, she believes. "I've learned about the real-world research environment, and the amount of patience, energy and compromise required to work as a team with scientists from vastly different fields," she says. "In astrobiology, it's not uncommon to find physicists, biologists, chemists and engineers all working together."

"Selection for the Astrobiology Academy is a tribute to Nisha, and reflects well on UNH," says David Bartlett, Space Grant Consortium director and associate director of the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space. "Nisha was one of 15 students chosen from a nationwide pool of 55 -- and all of the 55 were excellent candidates, nominated by their home Space Grant directors."

Bhatia continues to correspond with her 14 fellow student researchers. "We all have different personalities, came from different parts of the country, but we all came together, forming a special kind of family by the end of our 10 weeks."

She also plans to continue a group research project on the effects of motion sickness and weightlessness. She and other academy members continue to correspond via e-mail, and they hope to catch a flight on NASA's KC-135 research plane, whose parabolic flight allows passengers to experience weightlessness. It's dubbed the "Vomit Comet," for obvious reasons.

"Yes, I'm expecting to throw up," Bhatia says with a smile, "but it's all in the name of science."

By Carmelle Druchniak
News Bureau