It's a world of the infinitesimal. Nano-liters of material flow through micro-channels etched into a wafer-thin circle of glass. This microscopic activity is happening in JPL's Bio-Nano Laboratory, where biomedical engineering student Dennis Murray checks a microscope's enlarged view to monitor the materials' progress.
The college senior then puts on safety glasses and aims a laser at the CD-sized glass wafer. A brightening dot on the monitor indicates the laser has found its target. Murray and other students are developing a "lab on a chip" under the mentorship of JPL engineer Peter Willis, the principal investigator for a variety of micro chip projects. The eventual goal of this chip is to travel in a tiny box aboard a spacecraft to another planet or moon and analyze samples collected from the surface. A lander's robotic arm would gather samples and place them on the chip, which would then follow a series of steps to determine if there is evidence of life in the samples.
Murray, participating in the NASA Undergraduate Student Research Program, is at JPL for a 15-week internship. This NASA program offers internship opportunities at all NASA centers to undergraduates majoring in science, math or engineering fields. As part of the program at JPL, students meet many scientists, engineers and fellow interns, and tour a different lab each week.
During his academic career at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Penn., Murray has worked in the pharmaceutical industry developing methods to re-grow human tissue. He came to NASA out of a desire to get closer to the source of innovation. "Growing up, everything that was cutting edge seemed to be linked to electronics and mechanics," says Murray. "These days, I think that interest has shifted toward melding biological technology with engineering technology. Everyone is looking to make the human-machine interface more intuitive and more capable. A device like this chip is basically bringing a lab to another planet and having the machine perform the work we would do in a lab on Earth."
"Autonomous lab-on-a-chip instrumentation of this kind has the potential of answering some of our deepest questions about life itself," explains mentor Peter Willis. "For example, is there current or extinct past life present on Mars? If so, how is it similar -- or different -- from life on Earth? Does life on other planets share a common ancestor to living creatures on Earth? Is there evidence for chemical evolution taking place on Saturn's moon Titan that can indicate stages of molecular organization prior to the onset of life?"
This futuristic miniaturized lab is several years away. For space enthusiasts, the idea of testing for signs of life in situ, or on the planet itself, should sound familiar. The Phoenix Mission to Mars' north polar region brought a miniature device to the surface of Mars in 2007 to test for chemistry related to life. Those instruments, the size of mini-ovens, relied on gas to test the samples. The lab-on-a-chip takes a different approach. Willis and his team are adapting a method called micro-fluidics. This technique packages everything traditionally done in a lab into a small portable device. It is ideal for space exploration since it is difficult to extract samples from another planet, return them back to Earth and test them.
Looking back on his 15 weeks, Murray says, "Pioneers in the biomedical engineering field work just like this every day. Improvements and discoveries that are made in biomedical technology can improve and extend peoples' lives. At the same time, this technology helps us better understand the natural world around us and possibly worlds beyond Earth."
To find out more about the NASA Undergraduate Student Research Program,go to http://usrp.usra.edu/ . For more information about internships at JPL, visit http://education.jpl.nasa.gov .