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Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Faculty & Staff

UH professor’s study blasts off to space

A grant from NASA will take a UH engineering professor’s research to orbit for study aboard the International Space Station.

The grant, totaling slightly less than $100,000, was awarded to Professor Peter Vekilov and will allow his theories on how proteins in a liquid solution form crystals to be further explored in orbit 230 miles above the earth.

“I am very excited,” Vekilov said. “Myself and others have put in a lot of hard work and I am happy we are getting some recognition for ourselves and the University.”

Vekilov has been persistent in his work. In 2004 he made a discovery on the illusive process in which liquid transforms into crystals. He discovered that before forming a crystal, the proteins in a solution combine in compressed droplets, where they possibly begin to develop into the shape they take when crystallized. He proved his theory three years later through direct observation.

Much of this phenomenon is not thoroughly understood because of inaccuracies when working with 100 or 1,000 liters of the solution, which is the amount needed to produce various chemicals and products like medicine. Vekilov said he believes this is because the liquid flows in a system at uneven speeds, or sheer flow. Vekilov said there is no way to test this theory on earth due to the effects gravity inflicts on the outcome.

“We have relevant scientific questions that can only be answered by doing experiments in space,” Vekilov said. “We hope to see a difference between the nucleation rate on earth and in space.”

Astronauts associated with the European Space Agency will perform these experiments onboard the ISS sometime in 2016.

“There is a big mystery about how sheer flow affects nucleation,” Vekilov said. “If we prove that sheer flow affects the nucleation of proteins, it is possible it affects the nucleation of all types of systems.”

Back on Earth Vekilov and his peers at research institutions in Europe will construct contraptions and perform further experiments on crystal formation and the effects of sheer flow and develop more adequate models of the procedure.

“This goes past proteins and solutions,” Vekilov said. “This is really about the essential science, the primary knowledge of the crystal formation.”

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