Monday, April 6, 2015

Science Orbiting Overhead: Awesome ISS Projects with CASIS and Proposal Writing Tips

The International Space Station orbits at roughly 400 km / 250 miles above us at a speed of over 17,000 miles per hour. Every so often, SpotTheStation notifies me that I can view the ISS from my location at night. Depending on my schedule and whether or not I've forgotten, I catch the ISS passes about a third of the time.

Friday night after Good Friday celebrations, my husband and I paused in the church parking lot to watch the space station pass by overhead. I'm always amazed at how fast it travels across the sky, though even at that speed, it was visible for several minutes. It's bright, brighter than I would expect, and could be mistaken for a moving planet, a non-blinking plane, or a long-lasting meteoroid. It still amazes me that this shining little dot is a large space station home to several astronauts and countless research projects, some of which I helped to make happen. It's humbling.

Two weeks ago marked two years since my first day working at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, a small nonprofit whose mission is to facilitate research on the ISS to benefit life on Earth. At the time, I was seeking a postdoc or a full-time post-grad school job. I had heard of CASIS (pronounced cay-sis, not caa-sis) but I hadn't realized that its headquarters is located on the Space Coast. A colleague informed me that they were looking to hire scientists and encouraged me to apply. I was hired on as a Scientific Research Analyst.

One of my primary roles was to study the research proposals given to us to fly research on the ISS and evaluate the quality, feasibility, and likelihood of success of the work. I wish that I had kept track of the number of projects that I was in some way involved in, probably close to 100 in my year and a half there! My job was that of a filter, weeding out the less worthy or too expensive projects in order to find the ones that were most likely to succeed. For most of the projects, I interacted with scientists in various fields across the country to obtain and review proposals.

For larger areas of interest, I wrote request for proposals (RFPs) on specific target areas. For individual projects, any and all science was fair ground for me to assist with, but my specialty is the physical sciences and especially remote sensing due to my astronomy background. My RFPs were remote sensing or Earth observation related. For those RFPs, I helped organize and run science review panels with experts in the field from around the country. I also worked with a scientific advisory board to help advise us on which scientific areas we should focus on.

This was a new role for me in that I got a huge amount of experience learning how proposals should be written by evaluating them. By reading and comparing poor proposals with excellent proposals, I now have a pretty good idea of what makes for a more successful proposal. For example, a poor proposal ignores instructions and guidelines, is not proofread or edited, reads more like a marketing document than a scientific paper, and makes claims without supporting evidence. We got a good number of “crackpot science” or pseudoscience proposals during my time, too, which were always entertaining.

Contrastingly, a good proposal very nearly takes the instructions as a template and responds to each question one by one, clearly outlining the research and explaining points with scientific justifications and evidence. Evaluations are based on the answers to questions posed in the instructions. Paraphrasing here, these are not actual questions, but you get the point:

Q: What is your project? A: My project is to do this and this by executing these detailed steps.
Q: Why? A: The scientific justification for my project is this with these supporting references and examples and this completed background research.
Q: Why do you need to use the ISS? A: We need to use the ISS for this undeniable reason to supplement ground-based research or because we cannot conduct this research on the ground.

I also had to learn to stand my ground and fight for my professional opinions when others were also fighting just as hard for theirs. This meant that I had to be confident about my scientific analysis and I have enough professional integrity to stand up for my conclusions, even if I was overruled in the end. Already a natural networker, I also tried my hand at a bit of business development, reaching out to scientists and engineers to inform them of the opportunity to fly their research on ISS. I supported conferences and workshops where I met with researchers wanting to use the ISS for their research.

An important point that I had to repeat over and over was the difference between CASIS and NASA. Firstly, NASA's ISS office is the big cheese and has way more resources. In a way, CASIS is a contractor for NASA with the flexibility and creativity to try to take a little budget and make a big bang. Another main difference is that the focus of the research that CASIS supports is research done on the ISS or to support research done on the ISS to benefit life on Earth. Every project awarded had to have a direct application to benefit humanity on Earth.

I can't talk about a lot of the projects I worked on, but I can mention these favorites that were awarded and published that I personally assisted with:

  • An Earth observation project to study harmful algal blooms (red tide)
  • A project to improve metal alloy creation used in golf products
  • A study using the microgrid power system on the ISS to improve microgrids in remote areas on Earth
  • The testing of a new imaging technology called charge injection devices similar to CCDs
  • An Earth observation project to study minerals in playas
  • An Earth observation project to study how carbon emissions in vegetation change due to stress
  • An Earth observation project to study water quality in the Great Lakes
  • A project to fly flatworms to study regeneration of tissue in microgravity
  • An improvement to the maritime vessel tracking system detecting ship transponders
  • A technology demonstration project to return small payloads to Earth from the ISS
  • A technology demonstration project to assemble small satellite modules in space
  • An Earth observation project to study tropical cyclones (hurricanes)

If you're interested, CASIS is hiring! I no longer work there so I can't help you much, but you can learn more on their website:

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