Eureka!

Take Me to Your Eater

How UB researchers got on board with a far-out school science project to launch potatoes into space

By Sally Jarzab

The rather unremarkable-looking potato plants growing inside UB’s Dorsheimer Greenhouse are actually one-of-a-kind: They are the first and only to have traveled to space and back.

Fresh off the capsule from low orbit, the 20 extraterrestrial tubers were planted alongside ordinary others for the purpose of better understanding the effects of microgravity on vegetation.

It’s ambitious research, especially given that it was conceived by middle school students. Principal investigator Gabriella Melendez, now an eighth-grader at Buffalo’s Hamlin Park School 74, found inspiration in the sci-fi flick “The Martian,” in which a stranded astronaut subsists on the Red Planet by farming potatoes.

“When I watched that movie, I started thinking, ‘What if we could grow potatoes in outer space?’” Melendez recalls. That “what if” was made a reality through the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), a nationwide science competition in which students design, propose and in some cases conduct their own scientific space missions. In that round of applications submitted— 2,466 in all—“Tuber Transport and Subsequent Terrestrial Growth” was one of only 21 selected.

Melendez and two co-invesigators, schoolmates Toriana Cornwell and Shaniylah Welch, developed the proposal with the guidance of Hamlin Park teacher Andrew Franz. A self-professed expert at killing potatoes (as in, baking, boiling, frying) rather than growing them, Franz encouraged the team to seek some outside expertise. That’s where two UB plant biologists came into the picture.

Space spuds growing in the greenhouse.

“The students came up with the ideas, and we just advised them on the best way to do it,” says biological sciences professor James Berry, who was joined by Mary Bisson, a professor in the same department, in assisting the young scientists. “I’m impressed with them and amazed they got it this far.”

“This far” is very far indeed: The spuds voyaged 249 miles above Earth to board the International Space Station, delivered via SpaceX rocket. The girls flew to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to witness the launch, making national news. Says Melendez: “I’m just happy that I brought my school some recognition. We’re doing this at a public school, and I’m proud that we’re known for something good.”

When their mission was complete, the bean-sized potatoes found a home at the North Campus greenhouse next to a control crop. The students immediately noticed differences. The space specimens looked smooth and plump, while their Earthbound counterparts were darker and shriveled. A few weeks later, one of the space potatoes became the first to sprout.

Even if we are still several steps away from farming on Mars, this particular batch of spuds seems to have weathered space travel just fine.

But don’t get the potato peeler out just yet; the point wasn’t french fries but experiential learning. The Spud Launchers team, as the students dubbed themselves, visits the plants regularly to monitor their progress. This summer, the team will head to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., to present at the SSEP National Conference, alongside renowned space scientists and engineers. The program goal is the cultivation of real-world scientific practice—the kind that takes place outside of textbooks, outside of classrooms, sometimes even outside of Earth’s atmosphere.

Clad in a lab coat and goggles as she measures potting soil with two UB graduate students, Melendez makes it clear that the potatoes aren’t the only ones growing. “I feel like a college student, and I haven’t even made it to high school yet!”