Student Lands $12K Grant To Study Space Radiation

It could be decades before humans make it to the rocky surface of Mars, but Florida Polytechnic University sophomore Payton Barnwell is already working to get them there safely.

Having landed a $12,000 grant through the Florida Space Research Program, Barnwell will lead a project this spring testing how to possibly protect plants, technology and explorers from radiation. Prolonged exposure to space radiation — as astronauts traveling to Mars would experience — can cause irreversible damage, including cataracts and increased risk of cancer. Radiation can even pass on mutated genes to the next generation, extending the harmful effects beyond the individual. Barnwell and her project aims to engineer a solution to this serious barrier to space exploration.

“It’s definitely a crazy feeling,” Barnwell said of receiving such a significant grant at age 19. “As students, sometimes all we do is write papers. But this is different.”

The project stemmed from an assignment in Dr. Melba Horton’s biology course, where Barnwell was required to propose a research theory and present her findings at Florida Poly’s BIO Expo. It won the faculty choice award, and inspired Barnwell, who is pursuing a Mechanical and Industrial Engineering degree, to continue her research.

She approached her professor about ways to get the project off paper and into the lab, and the pair recruited Visiting Assistant Professor of Physics Dr. Robert Austin to search for grant opportunities and give guidance.

“If you look at trends in universities, you don’t normally see students at that level getting any grants at all,” Horton said. “It’s usually the seniors being pushed by professors. In this case it’s the student who came and said ‘I really want to pursue this.’ How can you say no to that enthusiasm?”

With Horton and Austin as principal investigators, the team will expose a single-celled protozoa called tetrahymena to trehalose, a compound thought to block radiation. If the organism survives UV light exposure, the thought is it could help eventually develop a sunscreen or pill for astronauts to use during space exploration.

With a goal of becoming a space researcher for NASA or a private firm, Barnwell said this project represents the foundation for where she hopes her scientific career takes her.

“The faculty and the whole university is aimed at providing students with a lot of opportunities to pursue their interests,” Austin said. “That’s our mission. We’re trying to act on these interests.”

A native of Tampa, Barnwell’s fascination with science began in high school physics class. But her interest in space took off her freshman year at Florida Poly when she met friends with a similar enthusiasm for space and helped create the Association of Space Technology, Rocketry and Observation (ASTRO) Club.

The club hosts zero light pollution camping trips, builds telescopes and competes in science competitions. But her biggest takeaway has been the support and inspiration from her fellow future scientists.

Having chosen Florida Poly for the close-knit community and chance to work directly with professors, Barnwell said this experience has only furthered her dream of becoming a space researcher.

The chance of working one-on-one with her professors on such a sophisticated project is an opportunity she doesn’t think she could have gotten anywhere else.

“Our club is a small little space family, so we’re all really excited about where this could go,” she said.