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    AUGUST 11, 2005
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Space: The final frontier ...

For Sbarro Institute doctoral student Daniela Trani,
it is just the beginning


Photo courtesy NASA

Daniela Trani, a doctoral student conducting research at the Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine, examines a specimen at the U.S. Department of Energ y's Brookhaven National Laboratory. She was one of only 15 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows selected to participate in this year's prestigious NASA Summer Student Program focusing on deep-space radiation.

Each day, Daniela Trani, a doctoral student who is completing her thesis in the Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medici ne, carries out her research in a laboratory on the third floor of the Biology and Life Sciences Building. But her dream is to one day do cancer research in a laboratory that is orbiting 250 miles above the earth.

“I would love to do experiments on the International Space Station,” said Trani, 27, a doctoral student at Italy’s Second University of the Study of Naples. “It is a dream I have had since I was very young.”

Trani took an important step in that direction earlier this summer when she was one of 15 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows selected to participate in the prestigious NASA Summer Student Program at the U.S. Department of Energy’ s Brookhaven National Laboratory. The three-week program, May 25 through June 17, focused on how deep-space radiation might affect the human body.

“The main goal of the program is to try and involve young scienti sts and researchers in the field of space radiation,” said Trani, a native of Naples. “This is especially important for long-term missions like the first manned mission to Mars, which is scheduled sometime during 2025 to 2030. The crew members should receive chronic exposures to ionized radiation because the Mars mission will take about three years, roundtrip.”

Trani said that is important for researchers to understand the affects of deep-space radiat ion because the chronic doses of accelerated ions and gamma radiation experienced by astronauts on such a long mission could cause mutations and aberrations in human cells and blood cells that could later impact the onset of cancer.

“We also have to take into account an environment that’s very different from the earth and what the affects of microgravity might be in this process,” she said.

The program at Brookhave n featured lectures by radiobiologists, oncologists and physicists, as well as laboratory work in physics and molecular biology.

“The experience was absolutely positive,” said Trani, who conducts her resear ch under Antonio Giordano, director of the Sbarro Institute. “The environment there was very stimulating and we all worked very hard. The quality of the students and the instructors was also very high.”

Bef ore the end of the program, each student had to develop an idea with regard to deep-space radiation and then create a proposal for research funding to study it using BNL’s Alternating Gradient Synchrotron, one of the world’s premiere particle accelerators.

“That was a very important and valuable lesson for a researcher like me who is young and just starting out in my career,” Trani said.

“We encourage o ur young scientists at the Sbarro Institute to pursue opportunities, like the NASA Summer Program, that will not only stimulate their interest in other fields, but also enhance their skills and foster collaborations with others,” Giordano said.

Although her primary research is in the molecular mechanisms of cancer, Trani developed an interest in space radiation biology while working on her master’s degree under Marco Durante at the University of Naples. Dura nte, who is also an adjunct professor in biology and the Center for Biotechnology at Temple, is an internationally known radiobiologist specializing in chromosomal aberrations induced by ionizing radiation, and has a long collaboration with NASA. He also has collaborated in the past with the Sbarro Institute.

“I had the opportunity to work at NASA on radiation biology, but I preferred to work in cancer biology,” Trani said. “I wanted to work on someth ing that would be useful to a larger group of people. But space radiation biology is a field that interests me very much.”

This is why, upon completion of her doctorate, Trani plans to apply to become an astronau t with the European Space Agency, which could one day lead her to conducting experiments aboard the International Space Station. And the NASA Summer Program is a good first step in that direction.

“When I was selected for the summer program in deep-space radiation, I couldn’t believe it,” Trani said. “It is the beginning of a dream.”

- By Preston M. Moretz