Before they even walk the stage in December, five soon-to-be Texas Woman’s University graduates are making their mark, contributing to the future of space exploration.
Senior kinesiology students Natalie Wilkinson, Casey Rice, Andrea Kim, Andrea Martinez and Melanie Meek were shocked when they got an invitation to work with NASA.
Together as a team of five, they’d compete in the Texas Space Grant Consortium Design Challenge Showcase.
They faced off against 18 other university teams to find a solution for a problem that plagues astronauts.
The women chose circadian desynchronization, meaning disruptions to the sleep/wake cycle that happens on the International Space Station where astronauts see the sun rise and set multiple times over a 24-hour period.
“It throws off their sleep patterns, and a lot of them have just issues sleeping, issues being alert and completing their tasks,” Meek said.
Though NASA uses light therapy, the team believed a personal, wearable device could be a game-changer in keeping astronauts safe.
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But unlike their competition, they had no idea where to begin when it came to product development.
"I will say going into an engineering competition as non-engineers and having to learn the things, like how to engineer basically a device with absolutely no training whatsoever, and having to, in a semester, learn how to put this together from scratch was insane,” Wilkinson, who was team lead, said.
Throughout the summer and into the fall semester, the women devoted countless hours to reading, meeting with mentors in the field and even watching YouTube videos to learn how to design and build a prototype for a set of glasses that could emit specific light color and intensity.
"We reached a lot of hurdles. It took a lot of, I would say, finesse because like we’ve said before, we’re not engineers. So it took a lot of trial and error,” Rice, who built the prototype, said.
It was a crash course in something many take years to learn. And in the end, it paid off.
Just this week, TWU learned that as the only all-female team in the competition, the women came out on top.
They won best overall team along with best poster, best peer review and best video. They also placed second overall in the presentation category.
"To know that we came in as underdogs, as people who quickly learned engineering tasks, to see it pay off and know that other people appreciated our work was just extremely reassuring,” Wilkinson said.
The women said their invention will now be handed off to another group for some fine-tuning before possibly one day making its way into space.
As for the women, they’re leaving TWU and preparing for their next chapters with a new mindset.
“We can go even further. It kind of gives you the drive to just try new things and kind of be uncomfortable and think outside of the box,” Rice said.
This is the second time TWU has taken home top honors in the TSGC Design Challenge. Its team also won in 2018.