Annual NC Space Symposium Returns In-Person to Celebrate Student Research

On April 21, North Carolina Space Grant hosted its annual NC Space Symposium at the McKimmon Center in Raleigh. The Symposium brought together over 200 students and professionals from all over the state of North Carolina to celebrate student research and learn from experts. 

“The symposium truly covered the spectrum of space science topics, here in North Carolina and from our NASA expert partners,” Susan White, NC Space Grant director, said. 

The day-long event featured NASA speakers including the Artemis Launch Director, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson who gave the keynote presentation and NASA Langley Research Center Chief Technologist, Julie Williams-Byrd who gave the opening presentation. In addition, industry professionals, government employees, academic researchers and students attended and presented at the event.

Celebrating Student Research

As a celebration of student research, the event focused on students and the research they have completed over the past year in addition to student teams who have competed in competitions where they put their skills to the test.

“Our ongoing goal with the Symposium events is to provide a forum for students to share their space-related research with peers and professionals from the aerospace community,” Jobi Cook, associate director of NC Space Grant, said. 

Approximately 149 students attended the event with over 50 students giving poster presentations in two special sessions. Also, six students gave lightning talks and six student teams displayed their hardware and gear such as robots, rovers and rockets. Many of the attending students had received NC Space Grant support for their research or team-competition activities. 

Students presented research from an array of disciplines including astronomy and astrophysics, biological sciences, computer science, Earth and environmental sciences, mechanical and aerospace engineering, and physical sciences. 

“I valued the experience of getting to present my poster the most. Any chance to talk about your research is a great opportunity, particularly with those that are not familiar with what you exactly do,” Sadie White, student at Winston-Salem State University and NC Space Grant MSI STEM Bridge Scholar, said. “The best way I become familiar and comfortable with talking about my work is by teaching others about it.”

Throughout the day, students also had the opportunity to network — and learn career tips from experts in a special career panel. They heard from representatives at Collier Aerospace, KBR, NC Department of Transportation, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and Sierra Space

Career panel participants from left to right: Ashlee Bracewell, Riley Beaman, Jeff Mobley, James Ainsworth, and Mike Rice. 

A Look at the Student Poster Sessions

Mackenna Wood, graduate student at UNC Chapel Hill and NC Space Grant Graduate Research Fellow, presents research about the Carina Stellar Association, a young stellar association with an uncertain age. Young stellar associations are groups of stars that all formed at the same time and place. Previous age measurements for the Carina Stellar Association have spanned 13-45 million years. Wood finds that the association is 41 ± 3 million years old.
Jonathan Soltren, undergraduate student at Fayetteville State University, received a NASA Internship Award at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Summer 2022. Soltren presents this experience at the NC Space Symposium: Soltren worked on two agents of autonomous spacecraft, the mother craft and the daughter craft. Specifically, he developed the daughter craft node for the purposes of simulation.
The UNC Charlotte Astrobotics Team received an NC Space Grant Team Experience and Competition Award to compete in the 2023 NASA Lunabotics Competition. The team presents about their experience, which involved designing and manufacturing an autonomous mining rover capable of traversing, mining and depositing icy regolith.
Evan Yee, undergraduate student at Duke University and NC Space Grant Undergraduate Research Scholar, presents research about the combined effects of microgravity and space radiation on cardiovascular function. Yee finds that environmental stressors of spaceflight can invoke cardiovascular injury and cell damage.
Deirdre An, recent graduate of NC State University, received a NASA Internship Award at NASA DEVELOP in Summer 2022. An presents this experience at the NC Space Symposium: An evaluated the flooding and drying cycles of rock pools in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, AZ, and meteorologic and climatologic conditions to inform habitat monitoring and protection in the Western Sonoran Desert.
The NC State AquaPack Robotics Team received an NC Space Grant Team Experience and Competition Award to compete in the RoboSub competition. AquaPack Robotics demonstrates an autonomous vehicle that can navigate in marine environments, SeaWolf VIII, at the NC Space Symposium.
Teresa Purello, recent graduate of NC State University, received a NASA Internship Award at NASA Headquarters in Summer 2022. Purello presents this experience at the NC Space Symposium. She analyzed current engagement metrics from NASA’s partnerships and created a uniform way of collecting and assessing metrics from partners in the future.
Cadence Davis, Western Piedmont Community College student, is part of the 2022-2023 Community College Undergraduate Research Cohort. Davis presents research on the qualitative and quantitative assessment of the White Creek watershed. White Creek is considered an impaired stream flowing into Lake James due to having consistently low macro-invertebrate data and increased sedimentation over the last 5 years. In this research, Davis assessed forestry in and out of burn zones, monitored invasives, and identified areas damaging the stream’s stability such as sediment deposits and damaged stream banks.

To the Moon and Beyond

In Charlie Blackwell-Thompson’s keynote, she addressed the attendees as the “Artemis Generation,” the generation that will return to the Moon, and spoke about the future of space exploration. 

On November 16, 2022, she launched Artemis I, the first in a series of missions bringing human exploration back to the Moon and eventually, Mars. Artemis I was an uncrewed Moon-orbiting mission that lasted approximately 25 days and traveled 1.4 million miles. The Orion spacecraft splashed down December 11, 2022. 

Why the moon? “It’s a treasure trove of science,” she said in her keynote. “The moon is a great testbed for scientific discovery.” Returning to the moon provides the opportunity to generate a wealth of data and collect physical samples from different locations NASA hasn’t been to before. In addition, it’ll advance technology, inspire the Artemis Generation, create economic growth and better all of humanity by learning to live on other planets. 

NASA is currently analyzing data collected from the Artemis I mission and incorporating insights as they prepare for Artemis II, whose crew was announced on April 3. NC State and NC Space Grant alumni, Christina Koch, was named as mission specialist on this crew. “It is exciting for me as a launch director to now have a named crew that is going to fly for Artemis II,” Blackwell-Thompson said.

“The Artemis Generation, this is for you,” she said. “And it is for you because you are the generation that will take us to Mars and you are the generation that will determine where we go next and how we go, and I can’t wait to see where that is.” 

Blackwell-Thompson enthusiastically speaks to the audience about the future of space exploration. 

Read about launch day from the launch director’s point of view in a recent NC Space Grant Q&A article with Blackwell-Thompson.

Advancing STEM

Williams-Byrd, opening speaker of the event, presented about STEM opportunities at NASA. She is a champion of STEM education and engagement, often mentoring young scientists and participating in community outreach activities.

In addition to sharing inspiring words and tips for building a STEM career, she presented information about NASA’s opportunities for young scientists, including internships and fellowships, the Pathways Programs, and even full-time jobs for recent graduates. 

“The one thing that I like the most about working at NASA is that NASA encourages and gives us the time and the resources to engage with young people about STEM careers. That’s one of my passions,” Williams-Byrd said in a recent interview with NC Space Grant. “Whether it’s judging a science fair or attending symposiums, encouraging young people that a career in STEM is something they can obtain is what I have enjoyed most. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Williams-Byrd shares tips to students about building a great career in STEM: 1) Study and be prepared. 2) Never give up and dream big! 3) Find good mentors. 4) Learn from failure and rebound. 5) Build relationships. 6) Thank people! And 7) Pass it on… be a mentor to others!  

Space Science, Technology and Future Flight

The day’s agenda was divided into three sessions, which featured guest speakers and their research areas or professional expertise related to space science, space technology and future flight.

Space Science

The space science session featured speakers from diverse disciplines and their innovative research applicable to space exploration including air quality, space botany, and planet discovery. 

James Sherman, Senior Research Scientist at Appalachian Interdisciplinary Research Facility (AppalAIR), kicked off the session with a presentation about how air quality is changing in the Southeastern United States, a study that is informed by 15 years of measurements taken from NASA and NOAA sites. 
Aurora Toennisson, Ph.D. student at NC State University and NC Space Grant Graduate Research Fellow, spoke about her research on using bacteria to promote plant growth in space. Her research will help space scientists to grow food as they travel beyond earth. 
Pa Chia Thao, Ph.D. student at UNC Chapel Hill and NC Space Grant Graduate Research Fellow, gave a presentation on her initial findings on HIP 67522b, a newly discovered young gas giant planet, and how its atmospheric composition can tell scientists more about the early lives of gas giant planets.

Space Technology

Technological innovation drives exploration, and space exploration will make a difference here on Earth. Demonstrating this, the space technology session speakers spoke about a variety of topics such as orbital reefs, robotic exoskeletons and augmented reality.

Scott Asbury, Senior Director of Programs and Orbital Reef Program Manager at Sierra Space, kicked off the session with a talk about the future of orbital reefs and space destinations. Asbury notes Sierra Space is working to create new civilizations in space and using space exploration to improve life on Earth. Orbitals reefs will be mixed-use space stations in low Earth orbit for commerce, research and tourism. “The future is orbital reef,” his presentation states.
Nicholas Mazzoleni, Ph.D. student at NC State University and NC Space Grant Graduate Research Fellow, spoke about the use of robotic exoskeletons to prevent astronaut muscle atrophy in microgravity environments. He focuses on soft and suitable alternatives whereas traditional exoskeletons are rigid.
Austin South, recent graduate of UNC Charlotte and Summer 2022 NASA Internship Awardee, talked about his research on implementing virtual and augmented reality for decision-making at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

Future Flight

Advancements in aviation and aerospace are on the move in our state and across the nation. In this session, speakers highlighted cutting-edge research and trends in aviation in the state.

Riley Beaman, Unmanned Aerial Systems Manager at the NC Department of Transportation, opened the session and spoke about North Carolina’s use of drones, which includes traffic monitoring, environmental impact surveys, infrastructure assessment during natural disasters, and more. In the state, drones are increasingly being used and taught about in the classroom. “NC is leading the next frontier of aviation,” his presentation states.
Ashlee Bracewell, Structural Test Engineer at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, spoke about structural testing at NASA for research, development and resolution of structural issues.
Sterling Van Adams, undergraduate student at UNC Chapel Hill and Summer 2022 NASA Internship Awardee, presented about her internship at NASA Ames Research Center where she studied weather predictions for Mars landing sites.
Olivia Scott, undergraduate student at NC State University and Summer 2022 NC Space Grant Career Internship Awardee, spoke about her internship at Collier Aerospace. She studied structural optimization, which is the analysis of potential structural designs involving the optimization of materials for structural uses.

Thank you, sponsors!

Thanks to our Mars level sponsors, KBR and The University of North Carolina System, and Moon level sponsor, Sierra Space,  for helping make this event possible. 

Save the Date

Please save the date for next year’s event, 2024 NC Space Symposium: Explore Earth on March 22, 2024 at McKimmon Center in Raleigh.

Stay up to date on funding opportunities, requests for proposals, events and other opportunities at, @NCSpaceGrant on Twitter and Instagram, and NASA / North Carolina Space Grant on Facebook and LinkedIn.

This post was originally published in North Carolina Space Grant.