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Student Engineer Takes Third Place in National Competition

Following their dozens of NASA flights last spring that momentarily simulated weightlessness aboard a Boeing 707, four Smith engineering students and three on-ground team members returned to the college and compiled a 74-page report of their findings from several in-flight experiments.

Self-dubbed “Vertig-0”—an acronym for Vestibular Research Team in Gravity Zero—the students participated in the space program’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program along with students from some 50 institutions across the country. While there, the Vertig-0 team studied people’s sensory changes in microgravitational surroundings.

Their report, titled “Changes in Spatial Perception as a Result of Changes in Gravity,” was named last summer the regional winner in the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Technical Paper Competition and advanced to the Technical Presentation Competition at the organization’s national convention on October 11.

Susan Strom ’04

Susan Strom ’04, a team manager on the NASA flights and vice president of Smith’s SWE section, presented the paper at the SWE convention in Birmingham, Alabama, and took third place.

“Presenting the paper was a very good experience,” said Strom. “It was a chance to improve my skills. It’s also unusual to get to see other students’ research. I was surprised by the caliber of the other presentations, it felt really good to do so well competing against quality presenters.”

Students at Texas A & M University took first place; second place went to those from Stanford University.

Other Vertig-0 team members were Mimi Zhang ’05, Sarah Jaffray ’04, Christine Johnson ’04, Jessica McCartney ’05, Kerri Rossmeier ’04, and Caitlyn Shea ’04.

Specifically, what the students found during their experiments in near-weightlessness, was that as sensory cues of orientation—such as humans’ tactile, visual and audio senses—are removed, balance becomes more difficult. Also, the vestibular system—the inner-ear mechanism that helps control balance—is directly dependent on gravitational pull; when gravity is reduced, the vestibular system loses its ability to manage our orientation. Their findings may be useful to the future of space flight, engineering and medicine.

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