'The Weightless Lumbees' to Experiment with NASA


'The Weightless Lumbees' to Experiment with NASA


The Weightless Lumbees: From left are Cynthia Brewer, Robbie Goins, Toni Chagolla, Joe Oxendine, April Oxendine, Keil Locklear and Mary Beth Brayboy. Not pictured: Ginger Moody.

A UNC Pembroke and UNC Charlotte team of Lumbee Indian students have been selected for a NASA research program. Eight students, from Robeson, Hoke and Scotland counties, will conduct scientific experiments aboard a reduced-gravity aircraft.

The group, which has dubbed itself "The Weightless Lumbees," was selected from a highly competitive field of elite universities. They face a daunting task of raising approximately $20,000 to finance the April flight.

Just days after sending its first American Indian astronaut to space, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) selected a team of Lumbee students to participate in a research program that will soon have them floating in zero gravity.

The team's research proposal was one of 72 selected in a blind screening process from the more than 300 submitted by universities nationwide for NASA's KC-135A Reduced Gravity Undergraduate Research Program. They will join teams from MIT, Harvard, Purdue and other universities in testing their research in zero gravity.

The students, all members of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, received news on Dec. 6 that one of two proposals had been accepted. On Dec. 16, they got the news that all eight students would fly with two experiments.

The "Weightless Lumbees" team started work in October, preparing their research proposals using email and videoconferencing labs at the two campuses.

The UNCP team members include: April Oxendine, a junior chemistry major from Lumberton, Toni Chagolla, a senior biology and chemistry major from Shannon, Cynthia Brewer a junior biomedical major from Shannon, Joe Oxendine, a senior molecular biotechnology major from Raeford and Mary Beth Brayboy, a senior mass communications major from Laurinburg.

The UNC Charlotte members include: Ginger Moody, a senior business major from Maxton, Robbie Goins, a junior civil engineering major from Pembroke and Kiel Locklear, a senior mechanical engineering major from Pembroke.

The team members are excited about the adventure.

"We are taking liquids of different weights and colors to see the effects of weightlessness on how they diffuse," said April Oxendine.

"We will also replicate the experiment here in the lab for comparison to what happens during weightlessness," said Joe Oxendine. "I should point out that, as the plane flies, we have 40 seconds of weightlessness during 40 parabolic flight paths."

During the press conference, there was considerable joking about the knickname of the NASA craft, which is often referred to as the "vomit comet."

"If they prepare themselves, they should not have any problems," said Brayboy, who as public relations coordinator for the group will not ride in the aircraft.

The group said they are proud to be selected, and they believe that NASA research is beneficial for their undergraduate experience and for the surrounding community.

"Research is a big thing for getting a job or going to graduate school," said Joe Oxendine. "This is a good thing."

"When we make presentations in elementary schools, kids can see that this kind of education is a possibility for them too," said Kiel Locklear.

"They are role models," Brayboy said.

Dr. Tim Ritter, a UNCP chemistry professor and advisor for the project, said there is a great deal to be proud of.

"The university and the community should all be proud of them," Dr. Ritter said. "How many times do people here get to be in the national spotlight?"

The team will fly to Houston, Texas, to spend April 10-19 researching how liquids diffuse in a reduced gravity environment. To do so, the students - some of whom have never flown in a commercial aircraft before - will be flying in NASA's KC-135A aircraft, an airplane that, through controlled dives, can simulate zero gravity in its bay. The sensation has landed the research facility the dubious nickname of "vomit comet."

The team members, who met each other face-to-face for the first time as they learned their project had been selected, will begin conducting preliminary research in the next few weeks.

Team advisors say the students' research could prove valuable to those working at NASA on shuttle missions and international space station work. Their Aqueous Diffusion Rates (ADR) project could inform their work when mixing liquids in low gravity environments.

Both UNCP and UNC Charlotte conducted competitive selection processes for the student teams and released their final rosters Oct. 4.

NASA's KC-135A Reduced Gravity Undergraduate Research Program is designed to inspire student interest in science, engineering and technology. For more information on the 2003 KC-135 program, visit their website at www.microgravity.nasa.gov.

Contributions to The Weightless Lumbees' project may be made to the UNCP Foundation by calling 910.521.6252. For information, contact tim.ritter@uncp.edu.