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UI instructor tweets at final space shuttle launch

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Jim Grossmann/NASA

Members of the media and employees gather near the countdown clock to see space shuttle Atlantis soar off the launch pad at NASA's Kennedy Space center in Florida on July 8. Joanne Manaster, a UI biology lecturer, was one of 150 people named official NASA tweeters who had behind-the-scenes access to the event.

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INSIDE ILLINOIS, July 21, 2011 | Mike Helenthal, News Editor | 217-333-5491

When it comes to science, Joanne Manaster admittedly inspires easily.

A UI biology lecturer for 20 years, she lives in a world where everyday objects still hold wonder and even simple experiments can serve as gateways to discovery.

So you can imagine the crater-like impact left after Manaster witnessed, firsthand, the July 8 final launch of NASA’s space shuttle program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“I was literally squealing and everyone around me was yelling and jumping up and down,” she said. “It’s just so much more real when you’re there.”

Manaster was one of 150 people selected from across the country to participate in NASA’s “Tweetup” program, a collection of social-media users picked to give live, in-person accounts of the lead-up to shuttle Atlantis’ historic launch.

Being an official NASA Tweeter gave Manaster behind-the-scenes access and information, and when Atlantis left the launch pad, she saw it and felt it from within the 3-mile restricted zone not open to the general public.

“It was intense,” she said. “It was an unbelievable sight. I was having a hard time holding my camera steady when (Atlantis) went up; and then you could feel the vibrations coming last.”

Manaster learned she had been selected from 5,500 applicants to attend the launch just a month before the event. She was in a meeting when she received the acceptance email.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I applied,” she said. “Getting that email made it impossible to think for the rest of the day.”

Participants had to plan and pay for their own trip, and with an estimated 1 million spectators filling rooms near Kennedy Space Center in the two days prior to launch, Manaster let a travel agent take over logistical plans. She eventually roomed with an acquaintance she’d met at a prior conference.

Manaster said she worried the stormy Florida weather forecast at launch time would alter her hurried hotel accommodations if it pushed back Atlantis’ schedule. In fact, a day before the launch a lightning strike on the shuttle’s launch pad presented a real threat to the takeoff itinerary. But the dangers passed and she left for home, as planned, July 10.

“They had some of those very same issues at the last two launches,” she said, noting her group was the fifth to officially promote a NASA shuttle launch. “It was certainly looking iffy because of the weather.”

The two days leading up to the launch gave Manaster a behind-the-scenes tour that brought her within about 2,000 feet of the launch pad during the retraction process (where the service portion of the Shuttle, used for loading supplies, is removed). She also heard lectures from NASA technicians and former astronauts, who shared experiences and an overview of the many scientific experiments being conducted on the current mission.

Manaster said she was struck by the large number of biological experiments being conducted aboard Atlantis.

“We heard over and over again the need to engage students in the sciences,” she said. “That’s a message that really caught my attention because my outreach is all about that. They’re the ultimate STEM (science, technology, engineer and math) ambassadors.”

She said she was most impressed with plant-signaling experiments and a metagenomic study wherein astronauts collect their own space-borne bacteria captured in a HEPA filter. 

“It’s exciting that they’re doing biology in space and it’s good to know there’s still a lot of science to be done,” she said.

Manaster has brought her space shuttle inspiration back to the Urbana campus and plans to share it immediately and excitedly through a host of outreach activities that she already leads.

She said her passion for science is eclipsed only by her desire to share it with young women, a demographic group that perennially falls behind men in pursing scientific disciplines.

Her annual bioengineering camp for girls through Girls Adventures in Math and Engineering Sciences is set for this week; she sponsors the Kids Read Science/Teens Read Science contest; she advises the UI iGEM synthetic biology team; she sponsors a science-based video blog (www.joannelovesscience.com); and she was recently selected, along with two other UI professors, to join the blog network of Scientific American.

Manaster said the space program attracted her to science early in life after her family watched moon launches from their home in New Mexico. By the fifth grade she had concluded she was going to be an astronaut, a plan that morphed into becoming a doctor and eventually led to her path in biology.

“I ended up figuring out I didn’t want to be an astronaut,” she said. “I’m not even a fan of roller-coasters.”

She said she worries the loss of the space shuttle program will mean children won’t have such a viable, visible scientific goal to pursue.

“Are we going to be missing astronauts?” she asked. “It would be nice to know what the next goal is because genomics is more of a quiet thing compared to watching the shuttle take off into space.”

She also worries the void in secondary science education is being filled by television shows featuring explosive entertainment, but little exploratory science.

“There’s a disconnection with the kind of science they’re putting on TV,” she said. “We’ve got to find ways to get their attention. Growing up, I was missing the example of any real scientists – let alone women scientists. I love teaching and I want to create a place where this can happen.”

Manaster said her bioengineering camp focuses on taking everyday items and showing students the science involved in creating them.

“I try to put different layers in there and find places where they can connect,” she said. “For me, science was always a passion and it’s led to a magnetic path.”

She thinks the current tool for inspiration – the Internet and social media platforms – is an almost endless expanse of classroom waiting to be filled with compelling science lessons.

“I’ve been collecting data on what people are looking for,” she said. “The online world is a place where we can create a place where they want to contribute. I’ll hit upon some formula that works.”

And for students after that, maybe the sky won’t be the only limit.

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