Saturday, April 13, 2013

Experimental Sequence Test, Part 2

...And we're back!  So last we left off, our team had just finished our isolation and had a nice fresh batch of purified T-Cells.  After a well-deserved lunch break (and more coffee) we began the second half of our day -- loading the experimental containers that will carry our cells into space.

Diagram of Experimental Container
Each experimental container (pictured above) has four chambers, and each of these chamber has three compartments. The bottom compartment in the chamber holds one of our isolated T-cell samples.  The middle compartment has a mixture of activator beads that are used to activate the cells during the experiment - you can think of them as mimicking an infection.  The top compartment holds a chemical fixative that preserves the cells after the experiment is complete.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Experimental Sequence Test, Part 1

Well, it's been a very big day for us here!  So big, we're going to break it up over a couple of entries. 

This was the first day in the Experimental Sequence Test (EST) for our T-cell experiment and by far our busiest.  Today we isolated our cells, filled the experimental containers and handed them over to to be loaded for the "launch" tomorrow.  Of course, since this is a test run, our T-cells aren't actually headed to the ISS.  Instead, they will be taken to another building on the ESA campus, where a surrogate crew member will perform our experiment.  Then, the cells will be frozen, packed up, and returned to us back here on "earth" (that is, the lab) so that we can collect our samples.  

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Rocket Bio 101: Why Send Cells to Space?

T-Cell (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)
To say the immune system is complex is like saying that Mt. Everest is tall.  It may be true but it is also a mammoth understatement.

The immune system is an immense network of millions of cells that roam your body like a tiny army.  Some seek out invading pathogens and alert other cells to their presence, some attack and destroy those pathogens, and still others help your body remember those pathogens so that you can get rid of them faster if they return. A healthy immune system is extremely efficient at protecting you from the bacteria and other foreign agents you encounter numerous times in a normal day.  However, as we get older - or, as it turns out, go into space - the immune system begins to fail.   Our lab is trying to figure out why.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Boxes, boxes everywhere...

On Friday, after our internal clocks finally adjusted to Central European Time, we drove from Amsterdam to our hotel in Noordwijk.  The countryside was picturesque, dotted with farmhouses, bicyclists, canals and windmills.  But no tulips, unfortunately.  The four of us are hoping that the warm weather comes soon.

Today was our first day on the ESTEC campus. We arrived early this morning for our badges and safety orientation. We also met some of our European collaborators in person for the first time -- we have been talking with them in teleconferences for several months, and it was very nice to have faces for all the voices.

After orientation we walked around our lab, which will be like our second home this next week.  While the space seems very big now, it will be crowded during the test run on Thursday when all the teams are in the room.  After a short lunch break, we started unpacking. About a month ago, we shipped all of the supplies for our test run - no small task. Everything needed, from our pipettes to our media to our collection tubes, had to be packed and sent from our lab in San Francisco to the lab here. All told, we had 17 boxes and a suitcase.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Foodie Scientists Unite: Amsterdam, Part 1

What do all four of us have in common? We all love FOOD! Coming from the Bay Area, we are blessed with the best ingredients, best restaurants, and best chefs in the world!  We did some research and found a few popular dishes that we would have to find and try for ourselves. Naturally, of course, we had to chronicle our food adventures abroad.

After we checked into our hotel, we decided to beat the jet lag by going around Amsterdam. From our hotel, we caught the train at Schiphol into Amsterdam Central Station and stepped out in the blistering cold. Since we had been watching the weather for the past 2 weeks, we were prepared! After walking around for a bit, we decided to stop in this cafe where we had coffee and hot chocolates (with real whipped cream!). As I was shivering in my parka, hoping to warm up from my hot chocolate, I noticed many people "basking" in the sun shedding their thick jackets off. We all thought they were crazy!

The night before we left Amsterdam for Noordwijk, we had a fabulous dinner at the Hotel De Goudfazant, located in Amsterdam-Noord in an industrial type building along the waterfront. Getting there was quite an adventure, but the food was amazing. We were lucky enough to meet the chef and owner restaurant - Niels. Since I couldn't make up my mind of what to order, I asked Niels for some help and he suggested the seafood soup, roasted chicken, and the chocolate mousse. Deeeelish!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Amsterdam, the scientists are here!

We have arrived in Amsterdam! After a 13 hour flight and a connection in Frankfurt, we have reached the Netherlands. It is extremely cold here for us San Franciscans, although we did spot several Dutch without jackets. We tried to beat the time change by walking through the city, but the cold and exhaustion was too much. All of us crashed after we returned to the hotel.

We will be traveling next to Noordwijk, where the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) is located. Once there, we plan to carry out a dry run of our experiment - from start to finish. We call it the "Experiment Sequence Test." This includes obtaining donated blood, isolating the T-cells, and placing the cells in special flight hardware units. The hardware will then go into ESTEC's microgravity simulator. Members of the European Space Agency (ESA) will be there to assist and coordinate the experiment, which may take over 12 hours to complete.

We already sent supplies for our entire experiment over to ESTEC about 1 month ago - this amounted to over 17 boxes of lab supplies. We need to rest up and mentally prepare for the first step of the EST. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


Hello and welcome to the inaugural post of the Hughes-Fulford Lab blog.  Our lab investigates the effects of microgravity on T-Cells, and will be sending an experiment up to the International Space Station (ISS) on a SpaceX/Dragon/Falcon9 spacecraft later this year.  We are very excited to share our preparations for launch, and will be chronicling our experiences on this blog. 

Over the next month, we will go to the European Space Agency (ESA) headquarters in Noordwijk, the Netherlands to perform a full experimental test run.  We will also travel to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral in May for a facilities trial run. 

We will get into the nitty-gritty details of our research and experimental preparation in upcoming posts, but for now thank you for joining us -- we look forward to sharing our experiences with you!