An all-female team of Texas Woman’s University kinesiology majors bested engineering students in a statewide space design contest.

The students designed and built a light therapy device to help International Space Station astronauts recalibrate their sleep and wake cycles. Their design took first place in the contest.

The project pushed the team members beyond their comfort zones, and made them learn new skills.

TWU students who compete in the Texas Space Grant Consortium Design Challenge, which was founded in 2002 and is sponsored by NASA, can’t apply for the challenge or the team. Professor B. Rhett Rigby, a kinesiology faculty member, evaluates seniors in the program based on their academic performance, their involvement in the program and their talent, and invites them to join an internship that focuses on the design challenge for a semester.

Teams have to conceive, design and fabricate something to resolve a problem astronauts encounter during space missions.

The challengers

This year’s team, which worked under the name The Oneiroi, assembled four kinesiology majors who are pursuing physical therapy studies after graduation and one exercise science major.

Natalie Wilkinson, of Cypress, was selected as the team leader. Melanie Meek, of Allen, was selected as the team’s research lead. Andrea Martinez, a Dallas native and the sole exercise science student on the team, was the design leader. Casey Rice, from Waco, and Andrea Kim, from Flower Mound, focused on research and design.

“I thought it sounded cool,” Rice said. “I didn’t know about the challenge until I made it. I got my letter from Dr. Rigby in an email, and I researched it and thought, ‘This is kind of cool.’”

Meek and the other team members got a letter from Rigby inviting them to join the internship.

“It’s like an offer letter,” Meek said. “If you accept it, you’re doing the challenge in place of your internship that you’d have to do otherwise. To graduate from the program, kinesiology students have to do an internship in either a cardiac laboratory or with a corporate fitness program. I really wanted to do it, even though I knew it was going to be a lot of work.”

Wilkinson grew up in Clear Lake, the Houston suburb that’s home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center. When astronauts say “Houston,” they’re referring to the Mission Control Center in Clear Lake, where many Texans work in aeronautical engineering for NASA and thousands once worked for Department of Defense contractors.

Even though Wilkinson grew up among rocket scientists and astronauts, she didn’t foresee doing any college work related to NASA.

“I thought the internship was a really intriguing idea,” she said. “When you get into this program, you’re either going into physical therapy, occupational therapy, or you’re going to be a fitness trainer. I didn’t think I’d be doing something like this. But we were able to participate in an engineering contest as health science majors.”

Martinez said she had space dreams as a kid.

“I always liked NASA,” she said. “But coming from a different background, from a low-income family, that wasn’t something I thought I could do. Then I got this internship and made my childhood dream come true, almost.”

The project

Meek said the team began meeting in August to brainstorm concepts that could make researchers’ lives easier on the space station. It didn’t take long for the team to learn that the internship would demand their best work and lots of hours.

“Dr. Rigby shot down almost all of the ideas we came up with,” Meek said. “The program expected a lot from us.”

Then the team hit on its winning concept: a wearable light therapy device that could help space station workers deal with the reality of seeing 16 sunsets, thanks to the speed that hurls the station around the Earth in just 90 minutes. The device operates on a single eight-hour charge, using a lithium ion polymer battery.

The station uses something called solid state lighting in its lab areas, Martinez said. It’s an unforgiving white light that helps researchers see every inch of their surroundings.

Unfortunately, being in space and under artificial light makes it difficult for many astronauts to fall asleep and wake up.

“We wanted to design something that would help them wake up faster,” Wilkinson said.

The team designed a device that is worn over the ears and rests on the bridge of the nose, like eyeglasses. Martinez opted to forgo any kind of lenses, instead mounting a rim of reflecting tape that directs light from a row of tiny bulbs into the eyes.

“We found that blue light was the light source that would wake up our test subjects the fastest,” she said. “There are light therapy glasses people use, the Luminette glasses, but we didn’t want people to look down at what they were working on and have them fall off. I hope the next team works on this device more, and changes them to have more individual-type fit, because people have different nose shapes and sizes.”

Rice programmed the device’s circuit boards to turn the power on and off, indicate battery charge and operate a timer. The team tested the device in the TWU kinesiology department at Pioneer Hall, and observed and tracked vital signs associated with wakefulness, including the fight-or-flight response and cognitive reaction times. Sleepy subjects do simple tasks more slowly than their alert counterparts, the team confirmed.

Martinez said there’s room for more customization on the device.

“I’d like to see the next team take this further and add different light colors, so whoever wears it can choose the color they like for the therapy sessions,” she said.

Learning on a light-speed curve

Rice said she had to learn how to code for the project.

“It was kind of scary,” she said. “I had to teach myself to do it. I’ve never coded. And just when you think you’ve figured something out, something would go wrong. I had to just pick it up and figure it out.”

Meeks said the team members had to teach themselves how to administer an electroencephalogram, a test that hooks a machine to a subject’s head to measure brain waves. They first found someone with a personal EEG machine who would lend it to the team.

“We had a day and a half to use the machine, so we had to teach ourselves how to administer it,” Meeks said. “We were able to do that. It felt pretty good to learn how to do something and do it right.”

Wilkinson said the EEG also meant getting accurate interpretations of the data.

“We weren’t able to get someone to read it in time, so Dr. Rigby dropped this huge textbook in front of us and told us we’d have to do it ourselves. We taught ourselves how to do that, too.”

The team spent about seven hours a day for the week before the testing period and during the one-week test.

The win

The team had to create a design poster explaining their concept and device for a panel of judges, and then present it virtually to them.

“One of the hardest things we had to do was cut down the presentation,” Meeks said. “We had to learn so much to do the project that it was hard to figure out which information we could leave out.”

Martinez said the team rehearsed the presentation.

“We wanted to make sure we had the presentation timed right,” she said.

Since winning the contest last month, the team has done radio, television and newspaper interviews. They’re excited to graduate from a rigorous program, and said they’re gratified to have gone up against students who have spent their college years on hard sciences.

They also came to respect one another, they said.

“We worked well together,” Martinez said. “I think that’s a big part of a project like this. If you can’t work well together, you’re not going to do well.”

Meek said she was especially impressed with Wilkinson’s leadership.

“She was an excellent team leader,” Meeks said. “She prepared. She made sure everyone had a task, and she came to every meeting knowing what everyone need to have done. And she also really helped everyone. It made a huge difference.”

Rigby said he watched the interns meet challenges as a group, and said the buy-in each woman showed was gratifying.

“I think this team spent more time getting to know each other. They collaborated so well, which meant they were able to get quite a bit of work done in a small amount of time and with a limited budget,” Rigby said. “I’m pleased with what they’ve accomplished.”

TWU won the challenge in 2018 with a garment designed to reduce back pain astronauts sometimes have during orbit. This is the first all-woman TWU team to win first place in the challenge.

LUCINDA BREEDING-GONZALES can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.

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