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VEGGIE Internship Made Possible by WSGC

September 21, 2015

Learning More About Plant Life in Space

An Intern Perspective

By Margaret Habib

Although my summer internship at Orbitec was the most short-term job I’ve ever held, it was also one of the most productive learning experiences I’ve had since graduation.

I first learned of Orbitec through an outreach position I held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which was funded by a grant from the NASA Astrobiology Institute. While planning space travel-related presentations and activities for school-aged children, I came across a photo of VEGGIE, an enclosed plant growth chamber used by astronauts to grow fresh vegetables on the International Space Station.

Intrigued (especially since I was already doing research in UW Madison’s Botany department), I investigated further and discovered that VEGGIE was developed and built by a company called Orbitec, based in Madison, WI, where I lived. I got in touch with the senior plant scientist at the company, Dr. Robert Morrow, who got a grant from the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium for me to work there for a few months before starting a PhD program in Plant Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Since working at Orbitec, I’ve had many opportunities not only to expand my knowledge of plant biology and plants’ response to being grown in the space environment, but also to learn more about engineering the habitats in which they grow, and insuring that the hardware is suitable for space travel.  

One of the first things I started working on was designing and testing an alternative watering system for VEGGIE that would take up less of the astronauts’ time than the current method. I also grew a variety of plants in different setups in our controlled environment rooms to test preliminary ideas for new ways of growing plants in space.

I was able to be present for a Critical Design Review by NASA of our newest plant growth chamber, the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH), and to observe the way our company interfaces with a government organization.  I met many of the NASA plant scientists as well.

I also collaborated with a plant biologist at UW Madison, Dr. Simon Gilroy, whose lab has funding from NASA. Together we developed an experiment that would investigate whether or not there are genetic differences between plants grown in pots in a growth chamber versus those grown in VEGGIE. The results will help Dr. Gilroy design future experiments for use on the International Space Station, and I spent a few days at his lab gathering and analyzing the data from our experiment.

It’s been a very exciting two months working here, and I am so grateful for the opportunity. Orbitec is an innovative company with bright and hard working employees, and it’s been a privilege to work with and learn from them. The skills and knowledge I’ve acquired here will be an immense help to me in graduate school, and I am looking forward to applying and expanding upon everything I’ve learned here. 


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