Of all the research projects underway at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, some of the most interesting are from California State University – Northridge students.A group of graduate students at CSUN’s colleges of human and health development, social and behavioral sciences, and engineering and computer science are conducting a joint thesis investigation of “comorbidities,” or the presence of multiple diseases at the same time, in diabetics. More specifically, their research seeks to understand how and why comorbidities affect diabetics in underserved geographies, and how to best use autonomous or semi-autonomous systems, like mobile phone applications, to improve treatments and, hopefully, quality of life.
The researchers are fellows of the university’s Autonomy Research Center for STEAHM, or ARCS, a multi-disciplinary research center the school stood up late last year in partnership with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale.“The vision is clear – to train the next generation of students who care about social problems,” said ARCS Founding Director Nhut Ho, who also runs CSUN’s Systems Engineering Research Laboratory.Last year, CSUN received a $3 million grant under NASA’s Minority Institutional Research Opportunity program, designed to encourage participation by minority students in NASA’s STEM research.In founding ARCS, Ho decided to focus on integrating arts, design and humanities into the study of autonomous systems – hence the addition of “Arts” and “Humanities” to the traditional STEM acronym in the center’s full name. That’s called “convergent research.” By commissioning these projects, ARCS provides a direct pipeline to internship and employment opportunities post-graduation, not just for science and math students, but arts and social sciences scholars too, which Ho said are desperately needed to help realize the autonomous technology of the future, including at NASA.
The student-led comorbidities project even attracted funding from Medtronic Inc., a Dublin-based medical manufacturer with a diabetes division next to the CSUN campus in Northridge.
That funding, plus resources from ARCS, will help their research go further than a written study.
Now that their meta-analysis and papers have been completed, the next step is to work with senior JPL scientists in the spring semester to create an ethnographic map of how doctors and patients treat diseases. Then, the team will start building real-world solutions.That’s just one of more than a dozen research projects ARCS fellows have taken on this year. Others include studies of how JPL scientists can best collaborate in an all-virtual laboratory and how to use autonomous technology to grow plants on the moon.Ho said ARCS has ramped up exponentially since launch despite the coronavirus pandemic.“Like everybody else, we’re affected, but we make adjustments. Everything is conducted online,” he said.And motivated students aren’t flinching away from the challenge of all-virtual research.
“Before the establishment of this center, we estimated we had maybe 10 or 20 students who happen to be working on NASA-related projects. Within this last year, we have now close to 16 or 17 projects. … We’ve got about 150 students.”