Dartmouth Engineering Professor Zi Chen has received a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), in partnership with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), to lead a three-year research project on the International Space Station (ISS).


Chen’s proposal was one of just three selected from institutions across the country as part of the NSF/CASIS solicitation to further knowledge of tissue engineering and mechanobiology utilizing the ISS. With the funding for his project, “ISS: Unveiling the Mechanical Roles of Gravity and Buoyancy in Embryonic Brain and Heart Torsion,”he aims to identify the biomechanical mechanisms that drive the shape changes in early embryonic brain and heart development.


“It’s rare to be able to test hypotheses such as ours, especially as there has been a lack of opportunity in accessing the International Space Station until recently,” said Chen, who noted that the research topic has garnered significant interest despite the little existing available data. “Any simulated micro-gravity conditions can only be done for a few seconds if you’re lucky, but embryonic development takes course over at least a period of hours and days.”


Building on his previous studies, Chen, who will serve as principal investigator, will test the effects of buoyancy and gravity on the growth and shape of brains and hearts in chicks’ early embryonic development, which closely parallels that of humans. The data should lead to a better understanding of birth defects found in humans such as situs inversus, in which organs are found in the mirror image position in the body, which leads to difficulty in finding replacement organs, should they be necessary.


The researchers also hope to better understand left-right asymmetry of the body, as well as how the brain develops its shape under normal and micro-gravity conditions. Both studies could prove useful for future deep space travels.


Chen has recruited a Dartmouth engineering postdoctoral fellow and will also work with implementation partner BioServe Space Technologies, which received additional funding for the project. Chen will train the ISS crew to conduct physical experiments, while his team conducts research through control experiments and computational modeling from Chen’s lab.


CASIS, the nonprofit responsible for managing the ISS US National Laboratory thanks to a cooperative agreement with NASA, announced the grants in a press release. “The collaboration between NSF and the ISS National Lab to support tissue engineering and mechanobiology research will uncover new knowledge about brain and heart development, maintaining healthy cartilage, and reducing the negative impacts of human aging,” said NSF Assistant Director for Engineering Dawn Tilbury. “The insights gained from studies in different gravitational environments will ultimately improve life for citizens, young and old, who experience injuries here on Earth.”


Research on the project started last month, near the same time that Chen received the International Association of Advanced Materials (IAAM) Innovation Award for bringing “about some significant innovation to the sphere of advanced materials,” according to the organization.




About Dartmouth Engineering

Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth, founded in 1867, prepares the next generation of leaders to better the world through engineering education and research with human-centered impact. Dartmouth Engineering offers undergraduate and graduate degrees under a unified engineering department that fosters learning and discovery both within and across disciplines. Home to the nation’s first PhD Innovation program, Dartmouth Engineering is a leader in creating engineers with both technical and entrepreneurial expertise to tackle the most pressing issues of our time. Learn more at engineering.dartmouth.edu, or follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram (@thayerschool).

About the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory:

In 2005, Congress designated the U.S. portion of the ISS as the nation’s newest national laboratory to optimize its use for improving quality of life on Earth, promoting collaboration among diverse users, and advancing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. This unique laboratory environment is available for use by non-NASA U.S. government agencies, academic institutions, and the private sector. The ISS National Lab manages access to the permanent microgravity research environment, a powerful vantage point in low Earth orbit, and the extreme and varied conditions of space.

About the National Science Foundation (NSF)

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2020 budget of $8.3 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.