BME And Oceanography: New Frontiers For A Weldon Student Intern

Event Date: October 1, 2005
When junior Hamsa Jaganathan applied for an internship at NASA, she had no idea that getting accepted would see her working in oceanography on research that could help improve public health and see her invited to present a paper half a world away. Nor did she know just how much her class work in BME would prepare her to do this important research.

Hamsa was selected to work in an oceanography group at NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia, as a part NASA-Undergraduate Students Research Program. There she worked on two experiments in the largest phytoplankton laboratory on the East Coast, led by her NASA mentor Dr. Tiffany Moisan. Phytoplankton are microscopic plants that live on the surface of oceans, with some species being harmful to the environment and to humans. One of the goals of the research was to determine specific colors (wavelengths) for each species, so that each could be identified and monitored by satellite.

“Our team went to the Chesapeake Bay coasts and collected samples of the phytoplankton at different depths of the ocean. I, then ran samples in a spectrophotometer and spectrofluorometer, and collected the absorbance levels of the phytoplankton at different wavelengths for each depth of the ocean. With this information, we can find the highest and lowest concentration of phytoplankton at specific depths in Atlantic Ocean,” states Hamsa.

Hamsa also noted how her coursework at Weldon prepared her for the experience. “The classes I took my first semester of sophomore year were very helpful in my research. We learned about biomolecules and specifically, spectrophotometry. The basis that I learned from Purdue helped me understand the experiments more clearly and provided me background knowledge on the various tests that I preformed.”

She goes on to note that her mentor at NASA played to those strengths: “My mentor at NASA was very impressed about my interest in biomedical engineering. Although she was an oceanographer, a lot of the techniques of researching and testing were very similar to the field of biomedical engineering. She understood the similarities and gave me projects that I could relate back to my classes, such as using instruments like the spectrophotometer and the fluorometer.”

Dr. Moisan was obviously impressed with more than just her preparation. Not only did NASA invited her back for another summer, but Hamsa was also one of ten students from the US chosen to participate at the International Astronautical Conference in Fukouka, Japan. Over 30 countries participate at this conference, both professionals and students.

Hamsa summarized the internship, “This was truly the greatest experience I’ve ever had. The things I learned in classes transitioned great to the real-world-hands-on-research I did. I had a lot of support from family, friends, and of course, Purdue’s BME department.”