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The opportunities for undergrad researchers in this biomedical engineering lab are out of this world

The group posing with a spacecraft.
Anthony Lau, Ali Stibler, Michelle Meyers, Sabrina Vander Wiele and Nick Cavallero visited NASA in Houston.

A group of biomedical engineering students from The College of New Jersey recently presented their research at NASA’s Human Research Program Investigators Workshop, where they also got a behind-the-scenes look at NASA Johnson Space Center’s mission control, space vehicle mockup facility, and neutral buoyancy lab.

The undergraduates attended the space agency’s Human Research Program workshop in February thanks to their participation in NASA-funded research in TCNJ professor Anthony Lau’s lab. At the workshop, investigators share their research findings towards ensuring the health and safety of humans as they leave Earth for space travel to the moon, Mars, and beyond.

The group overseeing the large working area of NASA.
Biomedical engineering students Nick Cavallero, Sabrina Vander Wiele, Ali Stibler and Michelle Meyers at NASA Mission Control pointing to the Biomedical Engineering Station. The NASA biomedical engineer works alongside the NASA flight surgeon to monitor the health of the astronauts on board the International Space Station.

For two years, students in Lau’s lab have collaborated with researchers at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven National Lab in New York to study the effects of radiation on rodent bones. The research is expected to have real-life applications for astronauts as well as cancer patients who have received radiation therapy.

Lau’s research and extensive contacts provide students with opportunities like these that are typically only afforded to graduate and PhD students, and post-doctoral fellows at most other schools.

“Dr. Lau has created a strong research environment and helped us make so many connections,” said Ali Stibler ’24. At the workshop, students could see how their work connected to research being done elsewhere, she said.

“TCNJ provides more resources to support successful undergraduate student research experiences compared to the prior larger research institutions where I did my training,” said Lau, associate professor of biomedical engineering whose lab is now poised to participate in a new NASA grant studying the radiation effects on bone health during pregnancy.

Ali in front of a large indoor pool.
Ali Stibler ’24 visits the pool in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab, where astronauts train for zero gravity.

Most students come to Lau’s lab through TCNJ’s Mentored Undergraduate Summer Experience program, which provides stipends and housing for undergraduates to work with faculty in research labs during the summer — and many are now hooked on research because of it.

“Dr. Lau definitely kick-started my research path,” said Sabrina Vander Wiele ’23, who plans on graduate school for biomedical engineering. Lau helped her get a summer research experience at Wake Forest University in North Carolina to study the bone strength of mice that flew in space.

“We definitely have a leg up when we apply to graduate schools because we’ve already done graduate-level research,” said Michelle Meyers ’23, who did a research internship at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota last summer.

All of the students who traveled to Houston also presented at a Biomedical Engineering Society conference in San Antonio in October, and several of them presented at the conference in Florida the year prior.

For the students, who spent a chunk of their college careers in remote classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lab and travel experiences were invaluable.

“One of my favorite things about TCNJ is that we have the chance to do undergraduate research, we get exposure to help us progress and propel in our careers,” said Nick Cavallero ’24.

— Patricia Alex


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