TWU’s all-female design competition team tackles space headaches in astronauts

TWU's Spring Athena V Team (Emily Blanton, Ashley Short, Vanessa Parnell, Elizabeth Schatte, Yuzek Rodriguez)
TWU's Spring Athena V Team (Emily Blanton, Ashley Short, Vanessa Parnell, Elizabeth Schatte, Yuzek Rodriguez)

May 4, 2021—DENTON—Five Texas Woman’s kinesiology seniors brought research to life by competing in the Texas Space Grant Consortium Design Challenge Showcase April 20-21. The TWU Athena V team, the second all-female TWU team to enter the competition and the only all-female team competing this spring, placed seventh overall. All five team members will graduate this May.

The TSGC Design Challenge, sponsored by NASA, offers undergraduate students an opportunity to propose, design and fabricate a solution toward solving research objectives of importance to NASA and its mission. The 20 competing university teams participated virtually in a Q&A session with judges after submitting a poster, mid-term report and video presentation.

TWU Spring 2021 NASA Team

The TWU spring team—consisting of Vanessa Parnell (Team Lead, Little Elm, Texas), Elizabeth Schatte (Design/Research, Trenton, Texas), Ashley Short (Research Lead, Pottsboro, Texas), Emily Blanton (Design Lead, The Colony, Texas) and Yuzek Rodriguez (Design and Research, Dallas, Texas)—continued the TWU fall team’s challenge of preventing and mitigating space headaches in astronauts when they are in microgravity, but they decided to create an entirely new design.

“We were the only spring team who decided to start the project completely from scratch,” said Parnell. “Typically, spring teams will pick up where the fall teams left off and expand upon what they have already done. However, we opted to go in a different direction and create our own unique design. We definitely had our work cut out for us, which was ambitious, but we did it!”

The team hypothesized that space headaches result from the fluid shift to the head in outer space and the excess carbon dioxide that is inhaled by astronauts. They believed the incorporation of cold temperature to the arteries leading to the head would cause vasoconstriction, thereby altering the blood flow, and reducing intracranial pressure. They also hypothesized that filtering the amount of carbon dioxide the astronauts breathed would help aid in the reduction of headaches.

Athena V Spring 2021 Mask

In order to prove their theories, the team designed a two-piece “Mask-Gaiter.” The mask contains three layers: an inner layer of silver ion (Xstatic) material that has sweat wicking properties and reduces bacterial growth; a middle layer containing a removable carbon dioxide filter made of Merv 13 filter material; and an outer polypropylene material layer. Inserted on either side of the mask is an air purifier and a one-way vent.

Connected to the mask is a gaiter also made of the Xstatic material. A cooling device is inserted within the inner layer of the fabric and sits directly on the skin to cool the carotid artery. The gaiter can be attached to the mask by buttons allowing it to be easily detached and reattached as needed.

Athena V Spring 2021 Gaiter

The entire garment is most useful in small and gathered spaces and in spaces with poor ventilation. It is appropriate for use while sleeping because of the mask’s comfortability. It also can be worn during and post-exercise to reduce dangerous body temperatures. The components of the sleeve are lightweight and interchangeable for ease of maintenance.

The team completed testing procedures in a heat chamber to create a controlled environment, with an ambient temperature of 75-80°F and 60% humidity, similar to that of the International Space Station.

For the competition, the team also designed a patch to represent and reflect who they are. They decided to carry on the fall team’s name of Athena V but made changes to the patch design. Athena is the goddess of wisdom and had the ability to invent useful items and crafts, so the design included her in the center. She has an owl on her shoulder, not only because the owl accompanies Athena in mythology, but because it is also TWU’s mascot.

“Typically, our teams in the spring semester continue the work of the previous team that competed in the fall,” said associate professor and faculty advisor Rhett Rigby, PhD. “However, for the first time, this team decided to start from scratch, which is not an easy task. With all of the hurdles that they faced this semester, whether it be restrictions related to COVID-19 or delays due to the February winter storm, I was impressed with the level of dedication to the project from all team members. This included learning new software, digging deep into the research and really going above and beyond what I expected of them. I am very proud of their accomplishments.”

The competition experience, as well as the camaraderie they gained, is something the students will take with them long after graduation.

“I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we are so grateful to have been able to be a part of the NASA Design Challenge,” said Parnell. “We had the unique ability to explore the health and life of the astronaut and dig deep into the physiology of the headaches they endure. To be able to make any degree of difference, big or small, has been such a fun and humbling experience that we will never forget and will forever be grateful for.”

It was my absolute honor to be able to lead this all-female team. They made it very easy to lead because we all had the same goals in mind. We all clicked from the very beginning, and I believe I made four new lifelong friends. Our team was comprised of some of the most intelligent, funniest and wittiest girls I know! - Vanessa Parnell

I enjoyed being able to use the knowledge and skills I have acquired to create a product that will be beneficial for astronauts. The ability to perform research and then make applications based on the knowledge I have is an invaluable skill that will allow me to continue to excel as I pursue my career. - Elizabeth Schatte

I wouldn’t have wanted to end my undergrad career any other way than being on a team of ambitious, intelligent women. I learned many lessons: how to properly work as a highly functioning team, how to acquire resources/research, and most importantly, how to be confident in myself and in my knowledge while in environments filled with others’ doubts. - Ashley Short

As the design lead, I had to learn an engineering program called SolidWorks where I made a 3D version of our product. As challenging as it was trying to do something out of the science field, I enjoyed getting into the mindset of an engineer for a semester. I learned so much about how to fulfill a group research project and enjoyed every minute. - Emily Blanton

The opportunity we had to partake in this project has been such an amazing experience and one that I will carry with me into the future as a healthcare professional. We hope that our device will serve as a contribution to space innovation focusing on the health of the astronauts. We hope to inspire other women alike to pursue their dreams. -Yuzek Rodriguez

TWU Spring 2021 NASA Team
TWU Spring 2021 NASA Team
TWU Spring 2021 NASA Team
TWU Spring 2021 NASA Team
TWU Spring 2021 NASA Team
TWU Spring 2021 NASA Team

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Page last updated 1:04 PM, May 6, 2021