STUDENTS: A little research goes a long way
Houston, we have bugs
Open up, astronauts. The cockroaches are coming. Or at least that’s what CSE student Andrew Surine hopes.
Surine is an aerospace engineering major, with minors in astrophysics and entomology—the study of insects. The senior is currently aiming to make bugs an edible option on the International Space Station, the moon, and even Mars—where they may nourish future colonies.
“I’ve always known that using insects as a food source is something that could be done for space,” said Surine, who became interested in studying insects at a young age. “They’re nutritious, they’re healthy, and they are very ecologically friendly to farm. Since insects have very small mass and can be farmed in a very small space, that makes them a great candidate for providing nutrition for astronauts.”
Farming insects like crickets, mealworms, and cockroaches is common on earth, typically as food for pets like reptiles and tarantulas—but also for humans to eat. While the idea of farming insects in space has been discussed in academia, it’s never been seriously explored by NASA, which is currently more focused on growing plants in outer space.
Surine, a 3M Diversity Scholarship recipient, started his bug project through the University of Minnesota’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program last year with Professor Sujaya Rao, head of the U of M’s Department of Entomology. Surine began raising insects in plastic bins in his apartment to see what resources and how much it would take to manage the creatures in space.
Now, he is working with a few other students to design a mechanical, self-automated box to farm cockroaches on a hypothetical spaceship—created with the vessel’s limited resources and mass requirements in mind. Astronauts can only bring a few items into space, so optimizing that mass is important.
OK, how exactly would the astronauts eat the insects? Surine has an answer for that, too. While the roaches could be eaten raw, they could also be ground up into a powder or freeze dried in a ship’s air lock.
His group submitted its project to the Deep Space Food Challenge, a joint NASA and Canadian Space Agency competition seeking innovative food systems for space. Although not selected among the 18 U.S. winners in Phase 1, Surine is optimistic. His team may still have the chance to partake in or compete in Phase 2.
“Several of the winning teams are incorporating insects in their systems, which was great to see,” he said. “The opportunity to launch science experiments and astronauts to space is increasing as rockets go bigger, faster, and cheaper, and I think the resulting escalation of the human endeavor will be fantastic.”
Surine hopes to be an astronaut one day. He’s harbored this dream since he was five years old. It was this curiosity of space and engineering that led him to CSE, where his father and grandfather also studied. He’s involved with the liquid rocket team, a student group on campus, and works as a planetarium guide at the University’s Bell Museum.
“I really enjoy talking about space,” Surine said. “I think the most important part of educating about astronomy is realizing how connected we are to that kind of stuff because a lot of people say, ‘Oh, the sun, the moon, and the stars and the galaxies… they’re all so far away. It doesn’t affect me.’ But it does. I like to make sure that people realize they are part of space, and space is part of them.”
The herbivorous engineer
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States entered a meat shortage. By the end of 2020, countrywide retail sales of plant-based foods had increased by 27 percent, the Good Food Institute and the Plant Based Foods Association reported. CSE student Maddi Johnson took notice.
Johnson, who is majoring in bioproducts and biosystems engineering, is a vegetarian and has been eating plant-based products for the past four years. But it wasn’t until the novel coronavirus hit that the CSE senior realized she could make a career out of the food she’d been consuming.
“It was really cool that we saw such a huge rise in plant-based products during the pandemic,” said Johnson, a recipient of CSE’s Frank Louk Scholarship. “And the technology behind it is also something I’m really interested in, like fermentation. It’s connected to what I’m learning about in my major, so I decided to look more into it.”
Officially, “plant-based” means food derived from plants with no animal-sourced ingredients. In recent years, several companies have emerged in the United States and other countries to develop plant-based meat alternatives that look and taste much like the real thing—without the harsh environmental impact. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, animal agriculture is the second largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels.
“Animal agriculture uses up so much land and resources, and emits so much pollution that it’s just not a sustainable thing,” Johnson said. “We can’t keep doing it at the rate that we’re doing it.”
There are several ways to make plant-based products, from using extruded proteins from plants to taking cells from animals and growing meat in a lab—a process that hasn’t yet been approved in the United States.
“Plant-based protein is already an emerging field, but now there are even newer technologies,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that plant-based meat is the only way forward, but on top of promoting and innovating plant-based food, I think that it’s important to move away from factory farming and unsustainable agriculture.”
As the daughter of two scientists, Johnson grew up wanting to make an impact on the environment. Her interest in research—and the University’s welcoming atmosphere—led her to CSE. She’s been heavily involved in the college since her freshman year, holding several leadership positions in the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and working as an administrative assistant and orientation peer leader for CSE Student Services.
Johnson works part-time as a contract student R&D engineer at General Mills. She is also an undergraduate research assistant in Professor Pam Ismail’s lab, part of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences’ Plant Protein Innovation Center. There, she helps with optimizing pennycress and alfalfa protein extraction. Johnson hopes the experience will help her land a research or engineering position at a plant-based food company after graduation.
“Since it’s such a growing industry, a lot of the companies need help with scaling up their processes,” she explained. “They all have pilot plants or are making products on a really small scale, and they need to figure out how to mass produce it. I think that’s where engineers can come in and help out.”
Solving chemical mysteries, one reaction at a time
Brianna Collins is a self-proclaimed chemistry detective. While she isn’t exactly fighting scientific crime, she is solving mysteries—on the atomic level.
The fourth-year CSE graduate student works in Department of Chemistry Assistant Professor Jason Goodpaster’s research group, where she uses quantum mechanical modeling to create computer simulations of chemical reactions. The technique gives scientists a more detailed picture of how the atoms within chemicals interact in ways that can’t be seen through physical experiments.
“There’s a lot of unexplored chemical space that exists that we cannot explore using traditional experimental methods, and using these quantum mechanical models, we can actually explore the space more freely,” Collins explained. “And I don’t have to spend time or money on [experiments] in the lab or make waste. I can actually just model my reactions on the computer.”
Most of Collins’ work happens through the University’s Minnesota Supercomputing Institute, which provides the software she needs to run the models. One of her main goals is using this technique to help other researchers understand the experiments they’re doing.
“We’ve had situations where an experimental group didn’t fully know how to explain some of their results, so they asked us, ‘Hey, can you play detective and try to model this to see if you can figure out why this certain phenomenon is happening?’” Collins said. “I really enjoy fundamentally explaining things. Rather than being a lab researcher, I can actually explain things on the atomic level using these techniques.”
Collins is an Arlington, Texas native. She earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in mathematics about four hours south of home, at St. Edward’s University in Austin. Her move to the Midwest came in January 2018. She chose the University of Minnesota because of two reasons: She loves the outdoors—a welcome change from her Texas suburbia, she said—and she felt a connection to the chemistry program.
“While I was an undergraduate, I was lucky enough to meet some members of the University of Minnesota Department of Chemistry,” she recalled. “Their drive and depth of knowledge left such an impression on me that I wanted to be a part of their work.”
Collins’ decision to uproot from the Lone Star State was a good one. “I love the vibrant energy of the Twin Cities, the verdant natural beauty of the parks and lakes, and the depth of the food scene,” she said. It has also opened new professional doors for her.
On campus, Collins has been heavily involved in diversity efforts as part of the chemistry department’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
“It’s a very unique position for a graduate student to be in, as a part of a committee that’s helped change policies within the department,” she said. “So that’s been a really good experience for me to see things from the other side, not only as a student, but as somebody who makes decisions.”
And, she’s not only interested in making a difference socially, but also environmentally. One of the applications of her research is electrochemistry, which is the study of chemical processes that can be driven by electrons, or electricity. This technology could eventually be used to replace traditional chemical processes that utilize fossil fuels.
“Right now, one of the biggest contributions to these greenhouse gases and air pollution is the refinement of raw materials, and any chemical process that works on this refinement of raw materials tends to be very labor intensive,” Collins said. “If we can use new technologies to make these processes more efficient, then we’re saving energy.”