Andrea Gilkey

University of Nebraska
Lincoln, NE

Biological Systems Eng.

Principal Investigator: Robert McCann
Project:Intelligent Spacecraft Interface Systems (ISIS)

Education and Experience:

Taking part in research as an undergraduate is absolutely vital to gaining practical knowledge in a particular subject area. Not only will the concepts learned in class become easier to understand, but the excitement of taking part in novel research will be felt early on, putting into perspective the importance of education. By obtaining research experiences in three different areas of biomedical engineering, I have been able to see the big picture of how several areas of engineering come together to improve the quality of life.

The summer after my sophomore year I became a scholar for the Nebraska's Institutional Development Awards (IDeA) Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) program. INBRE is a two year program for undergraduate students, allowing them to take part in biomedical research at one of the three graduate schools in Nebraska. I was given my own project in a biomaterials lab in the biological systems engineering department. My project was to design a vehicle for nonviral gene delivery. Gene delivery is the transfer of exogenous DNA into cells for research or therapeutic purposes. In nonviral gene delivery, a biomaterial is combined with DNA to deliver the desired gene to the host cell. In particular, I investigated the use of a novel biomaterial, zein, the storage protein from corn, as a potential DNA carrier.

After my junior year, I was interested in broadening my knowledge of biomedical engineering to include the area of biomechanics. That summer I interned at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in the Anthropometry and Biomechanics Facility. My project was to evaluate the current seat design of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle by taking anthropometry measurements to ensure that crew members of all anthropometry were physically and psychologically comfortable in the CEV. I became an expert in the CAM 2Q software, which collects information from a FARO Arm measurement system, creating points in 3D space of body landmarks to determine critical body measurements. I had the opportunity to run the experiments and collect body measurements when testing in the full-sized Orion mockup with crew member subjects.

The studies of anthropometry and biomechanics are important in the space program and human space flight, however they also have a broad impact in the areas of rehabilitation therapies. Several medical disorders, such as cerebral palsy, have an impact on movement of the body and it is important to understand this to develop effective rehabilitation therapies. My interest in biomechanics led me to pursue a senior design project on the development of a magnetoencephalography (MEG) compatible bicycle for a physician client. The bicycle will allow therapists to determine the rehabilitation progress of children with cerebral palsy by studying brain activity during pedaling motion. We are finishing the construction of our design and in the early stages of testing the prototype.

This semester I was a member of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Microgravity University team. During the fall semester of my senior year our team submitted a proposal to NASA for a systems engineering educational discovery project. Our team was selected and we had the opportunity to work on a project for NASA in the spring. Our project was a cryocooler validation for the VASIMR International Space Station (ISS) demonstrator mission. A prototype VASIMR rocket is scheduled to fly on the ISS within the next five years and the high temperature superconducting (HTS) magnet assemblies of the design require a cryocooler device to keep them at or below 40 K. The goal of our microgravity project was to validate SunPower's cryocooler efficiency levels and cooling capacity in supergravity, 1.8g, and microgravity, < 0.1g, environments. Our team designed and built a box assembly to carry and orient the cryocooler and a procedure for measuring and recording the efficiency and cooling capacity of the product aboard NASA's weightless wonder. We spent a week and a half at Ellington Field in Houston finalizing our design and testing the cryocooler on the zero gravity plane.

By having the opportunity to thoroughly examine the areas of gene delivery, biomechanics, and engineering device design, I feel confident in my abilities as a well rounded biomedical engineering student. Now that I have experience starting projects from scratch and carrying them out, I look forward to focusing on one area of engineering and seeing my project through to its completion in graduate school.


Outside of my research interests, I enjoy traveling, running, dancing, playing the piano, and martial arts. Traveling provides the ability to see and experience different landscapes and cultures. It amazes me how different the culture and landscape of various areas in the United States alone can be and I will take any opportunity to travel and learn from different cultures. I run recreationally to ease my mind and take in the surrounding environment. Dancing and playing the piano provide me with ways to express myself physically and emotionally through music. I am currently a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and enjoy the physical and intellectual challenges involved in sparring and the way of life the art form projects through discipline, respect, and overall health.

Future Plans:

I am attending MIT in the fall to begin my graduate studies in Aeronautics and Astronautics. I will be working in the Man Vehicle Laboratory studying the interaction between humans and their environment, specifically the environment of the space suit. This opportunity will allow me to combine my knowledge of biological systems and engineering with my passion for the space program and manned spaceflight.