During the last year of his training in mechanical engineering, Arnau Rabadán, a 22-year-old student from the Technical University of Catalonia (UPC) in Barcelona, Spain, established a relationship with the Fundaci Centre CIM, a nearby technology center. He was able to earn some money by teaching part-time while keeping his eyes peeled for an interesting final-year engineering project. His expectations were exceeded when his supervisor at the center offered him an opportunity to tackle a microgravity research project that Sergi Vaquer, a young medical doctor at the Municipal Institute for Medical Research (IMIM), also in Barcelona, needed help with. The project came with no funding, so Rabadán could work on it only during his free time. But "I accepted because I think it's a beautiful project," Rabadán says. "Never in my life would I have imagined to do something like this ... so innovative and different."
Photo (top): Sergi Vaquer onboard ESA's Airbus A300 Zero-G aircraft (Courtesy, Sergi Vaquer).
Vaquer, a 26-year-old resident physician who is preparing to enter grad school, had been working for several years on the project, which could help scientists understand how drugs are metabolized in space. It has been a bumpy ride, but last January the project--ABC Transporters in Microgravity was among the four selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) in its Fly Your Thesis! competition. The prize: the opportunity to perform their experiments aboard an Airbus A300 Zero-G aircraft that will take off from Bordeaux, France, during ESA's 51st Microgravity Research Campaign next November.
A long haul
Vaquer first heard about the ESA parabolic flight opportunity in 2002 when he was a 4th-year medical student at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He started reading about space-related medical research and got interested in how the absence of gravity influences drugs' efficiency and side effects. "I decided I wanted to do something in that field," he says.
Arnau Rabadán at the Fundació Centre CIM in Barcelona
Vaquer designed experiments to test the behavior of drugs in microgravity during his spare time, while he was working in the lab of pharmacologist Rafael de la Torre at IMIM, focusing on a family of membrane proteins called ABC transporters. It's potentially important work, according to Natacha Callens, ESA Student Parabolic Flights Coordinator. "The project ... could possibly lead to a better understanding of the role of the biological agents responsible for the assimilation of drugs, in microgravity," she writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. "This could be very important for the next generation of space missions to the Moon and Mars and possibly have repercussions on the development of drugs on Earth."
In the planned experiment, a drug will be added to membrane vesicles containing ABC transporters in microgravity to see how microgravity affects the transporters' activity. Back in the lab, Vaquer, along with Elisabet Cuyás, a biochemistry Ph.D. student at IMIM, will determine how well the transporters did their job of storing the drug inside the vesicles, compared with a control experiment on Earth.
Microgravity, of course, adds many challenges to otherwise simple experiments, and that's why an engineer is needed. Rabadán's job is to build a piece of equipment that can do the work aboard the aircraft while following strict ESA guidelines; it needs to have a certain minimum weight, for example, and be sealed well enough that no liquid leaks out that could damage cables, adds Rabadán. He is working with a UPC engineering student, Albert González, in designing the equipment's electrical systems.
ABC vesicles need to be kept frozen before experiments, but taking a freezer onboard is not an option, so custom isothermal containers will be used instead. The team also has to grapple with time constraints: They will have just 22 seconds of microgravity to conduct experiments that take 8 minutes on Earth. The equipment has to be automated so that all you have to do onboard is push a button, Rabadán says. "Space puts you in a situation where you have to rethink everything," Vaquer says.
Arnau Rabadán and and Sergi Vaquer during the ESA "Fly your Thesis!" selection workshop.
Another major challenge for Vaquer and his team was finding funding. But winning the Fly Your Thesis! competition yielded €10,000 from ESA and opened up new funding prospects. Once the project was chosen by ESA, Rabadán was offered a scholarship from CIM, allowing him to give up his part-time teaching job. He secured €100,000 from various public and private sources, with Schneider Electric contributing €60,000. The team also received in-kind support, including custom electrical equipment, biological reagents, and promotional services from Schneider and several other companies.
Persuading people to give you money in a time of fiscal crisis is tricky, especially for a student. "We presented ourselves as investigators doing work for ESA. They can see that you're young, but they listen to you differently" when you don't mention the word "student" right away, Rabadán says. "When you really are demonstrating that you know what you're doing, how old you are doesn't matter."
Making it happen
Vaquer has been training for the project for a long time. A couple of years ago, he spent 6 months working as a trainee in ESA's Crew Medical Support Office in the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany. During that time, he was able "to see what things can be done to help [with] astronaut health management during flights," he says. Also, "I learnt a lot about engineering and the constraints and how difficult life is" in space.
Still, "it's easy to feel drowned with a project like this," Vaquer says. "We have had a lot of disappointments." When the first 2 years of the project passed with no positive results, de la Torre asked Vaquer to consider dropping the project. One of the methods they had used early in the project, they learned, wouldn't work in microgravity. "We were [at] a point where resigning would have been the easy choice, avoiding more expenses and tryouts before discovering the proper method," Vaquer says. But they went back to the literature and eventually did discover the proper method. The team's morale suffered another blow 2 years ago when ESA suspended all student flights while reviewing safety regulations. But again they persevered.
There are "days that we want to go home and that's it. ... Especially at the beginning, it just seemed impossible," Rabadán admits. But overcoming the many challenges has helped him develop self-confidence. "I discovered my capacity of reaction when everything looks like it's not going to work," Rabadán says. "I don't know everything, but with sufficient time and effort, all is possible."
Vaquer has never stopped believing in his dream of flying his experiments into space. "I see ourselves able to do such big things, ... things that we never thought we would be able to do," he says. Meanwhile, the whole team is focused on the approaching November deadline. There is still a lot of work to do, but "the team is working intensively," Felip Fenollosa, Rabadán's supervisor at CIM, writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. "There's not [any] other way than success."
Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South Europe.