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Murray Hill student's experiment takes flight on ISS

Soon, when one North Laurel student looks to the night sky, he'll see more than stars.

Murray Hill Middle School eighth-grader Kevin He designed an experiment that soon will be on board the International Space Station as part of the Student Spacefilght Experiment Program's Mission 5. The project is expected to be launched this spring, and shortly thereafter, an astronaut onboard the station will conduct Kevin's experiment.

"I was really happy to hear my experiment was chosen," said Kevin, 13. "It was really hard work. It felt like, OK, my efforts have finally paid off."

The program that is sending Kevin's experiment to space is a partnership between the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education and Nanoracks, which is in turn partnered with NASA to utilize the space station as a laboratory. Four-hundred and fifty students from Murray Hill, Lake Elkhorn and Burleigh Manor wrote 125 proposals. Nine proposals from county students were forwarded to a local review committee, which sent three to the National Review Panel. Kevin's project was one of 15 selected to make the trip.

Howard County participates in the program through grants from numerous organizations, including the Maryland Space Grant Consortium, the Howard Tech Council and Bright Minds Foundation.

This isn't the first time Howard County students have sent experiments to space — last year Lime Kiln Middle School students netted the honor. But this year was the first time Murray Hill took part in the program, and unlike the Lime Kiln students, Kevin worked on his proposal alone.

Kevin said he hopes his experiment, called "Core-Shell Micro-Nanodisks: Microencapsulation in Two Dimensions Under Microgravity," will revolutionize medicine.

Kevin's experiment takes place in a small, plastic tube divided into three compartments. In one compartment is gelatin, alcohol and water. In another is aspirin and water. In the last compartment are three platinum rings. When an astronauts snaps open the barriers separating the compartments, the solutions will mix and — Kevin hypothesizes, will create a membrane supported by the rings.

"Best-case scenario is a new way to make medicine," Kevin said.

Ideally, the membrane will be thinner than what currently encapsulates pills. A thinner pill wall means medicine would work faster, Kevin said. He'll eventually get his hands on the experiment again next fall, when he'll be a freshman at Atholton High School. But he'll still work with his current science teacher, Ed Chrzanowski, to conduct the experiment on earth to compare the differences.

There's other ways to simulate micro-gravity on earth, Kevin said, like floating in a pool. If his experiment works, he wants to patent the results.

"Really, the sky is the limit when it comes to designing an experiment, regardless of how small the tube is," said Murray Hill Principal Josh Wasilewski. "Kevin realized how extended-release medicine could positively impact people. ... I want to celebrate Kevin, but this is a win for everyone. Students will be able to see that they're doing something relevant and positive. It's priceless."

Wasilewski and Chrzanowski said they were glad a program like Student Spaceflight exists. It gives the students authentic real-world experiences, and shows them what being an actual scientist is like, Chrzanowski said. Being able to do that for students is a powerful thing, Wasilewski said.

"It's so cool, to look up at the ISS and know a part of Murray Hill is up there," he said. "One of the most important things you can do for students — especially with middle school students who are at this stage of asking, 'why are we learning this, why is it important?' — is show them 'why.'"

For Kevin, whose father is a scientist and mother a statistician who analyzes drug results, the project was right up his alley. With science, he said, there are always more things to learn. And it's cyclical, Chrzanowski said — if Kevin's experiment works, it could yield another experiment, and additional things to learn.

"Other classes, they're fun, but they're just not really my thing," he said. "Like, with social studies, everything's already. It's history. Mr. C. is an awesome teacher and science is just more interesting, more fascinating. You get to learn something new, and you can be creative about it."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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