NASA awards grants to UVM researchers

UVM researchers were awarded $1.5 million in NASA grants this year, distributed through the Office of Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, (EPSCoR).NASA received 50 proposals this year for EPSCoR funding.  Of those 50, 27 were chosen for funding, two of which were for research projects here at UVM. One $750,000 grant will fund research on a propulsion system for very small satellites and the other grant will support research into the effects of microgravity environments on bacteria. “Winning these grants is an indication of the high quality of science being done at UVM,” Vermont Director of EPSCoR at UVM Judith Van Houten said. “Being small doesn’t mean you don’t have excellent researchers.”EPSCoR is a congressionally mandated program that enables smaller and more rural states like Vermont to build their science infrastructure.   In the past, relatively few states — including California, Massachusetts and Illinois — received the bulk of federal research funding.  EPSCoR was created in 1979 to set aside money to give smaller states a chance to compete for federal research dollars. “EPSCoR is needed to balance inherent biases that exist in competitive funding,” Darren Hitt, the recipient of one of the EPSCoR grants, said. UVM has a successful track record in winning EPSCoR grants — winning one in 2007, one in 2008 and two this year.    “We’ve done quite well.  It’s quite unusual to get these every year.  It’s particularly unusual to get two in one year,” professor William Lakin said, project director for Vermont’s NASA EPSCoR program.   “Receiving these grants is absolutely a function of our researchers,” Lakin said. “They’re world-class.”  UVM profesor Jane Hill is heading the team researching “micronauts,” her name for bacteria in space.    They’ll be looking at how microgravity environments alter the growth of pathogenic bacteria in the lungs, which will have implications for long-term space travel, such as a manned mission to Mars, she said.  Her research team is a joint effort between UVM’s medical school and the School of Engineering with one undergraduate and three graduate students.    This is Hill’s first time working on a NASA project.  “It’s exciting,” she said. “It’s total bragging rights.”  Darren Hitt first worked with NASA in 2000.  He will be using this grant money to continue research into a propulsion system for nanosats which will be very small, inexpensive and mass-produced satellites with short mission lengths.   “You’ll see them within the next decade,” Hitt said.  He hopes UVM will have a prototype of the propulsion system within the next three years. Though further developments are necessary before nanosats can be made a reality, Hitt said his team is working to ensure they will maintain stability in orbit. That team includes two of Hitt’s former undergraduate students who have stayed at UVM to assist on the project as graduate students.  Several UVM students have already earned graduate degrees and Ph.D.s after working with Hitt on this project.  “This is good for UVM students,”  Hitt said.