A tale of cheerleaders, microbes, and orbit


Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philly.com. 
LAST UPDATED: Monday, March 3, 2014, 5:22 PM
Forget about the Olympics in Sochi and the puffy peaks of the Caucasus Mountains.
There’s a sporting event soon to get underway where the players – eight of them from Philadelphia – will face off in a venue out of this world.
The athletes are microbes, microscopic organisms the likes of bacteria and fungi. They’ll be flying aboard the SpaceX Dragon space cargo vessel to a playing field 230 miles above the planet on the International Space Station.
There are nearly 50 microbial players in all, and the monthlong competition, to begin March 16, will see which grows fastest, densest, and longest. The microbes will compete against one another, as well as against control microbes at the University of California, Davis.

Rooting for them on Earth will be at least 250 professional cheerleaders and thousands of citizen scientists.

“Competing ‘bugs’ on the space station,” said Jonathan Eisen, lead scientist for Project MERCCURI, (Microbial Ecology Research Combining Citizen and University Researchers on the International Space Station). “It’s a crazy idea.”
Crazy brilliant.
Officially, Project MERCCURI is studying how microbes grow in near-zero gravity, examining changes in the bugs’ RNA and DNA at higher radiation levels, and developing a profile of the space station’s microbial ecology, with an eye toward managing the environment for long-term missions.
Project MERCCURI is one of hundreds of so-called “citizen science” projects that allow everyday people to collaborate with world-famous researchers.
Many of those projects exist in the online world. For instance, citizen scientists play a game at EyeWire.org that helps MIT neuroscientists map the brain, one neuron at a time. Others require hands-on participation. Hundreds of children and adults collected ants in their backyards for a national ant census, and nearly as many swabbed their navels for a belly-button biodiversity project under the auspices of North Carolina State University’s YourWildLife.org.
At the Wells Fargo Center on Feb. 18, as part of “Science with the Sixers Night,” Project MERCCURI sought out a few good microbes to join the space-bound teams, which already included microbial cultures collected from the Liberty Bell, astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s cellphone, the playing fields of the Raiders, Redskins, Titans, and Patriots, the set of Today, and Pop Warner football fields across the country.
During the game, cheerleaders took samples from cellphones and shoes on the arena concourse. The samples’ DNA will be sequenced at UC Davis, and at least one lucky contestant will be rocketed to the space station.
The idea began with Eisen. When not commanding his microbiology lab at UC Davis, he leads an effort to bring public awareness to the Microbiome of the Built Environment. Funded by the Sloan Foundation, it’s an ambitious investigation of the invisible world of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live with us – in our basements, bedrooms, boardrooms, and any other indoor space you can imagine.
At a scientific conference, Eisen met Darlene Cavalier, a former 76ers cheerleader from Society Hill. Better chemistry couldn’t be cooked up in a test tube. They immediately hit it off.
Eisen needed data and help getting out the message of microbes. Cavalier was uniquely qualified to provide both.
After Cavalier hung up her pom-poms, the mother of four created two start-ups: Science Cheerleader, a network of 250 current and former professional cheerleaders whose mission is to encourage kids to take up science careers, and SciStarter.com, a website that serves as the nation’s clearinghouse for crowd-sourcing science projects.
Several months later, Cavalier learned of a competition to send science projects into space and alerted Eisen.
“I said, ‘If we can do anything, I want to swab the space station,’ ” Eisen said. “After all, it’s probably the most unique ‘built environment’ we have.”
Cavalier, though, wanted public engagement. “Astronauts taking samples at the space station,” she said, “is not something people can participate in.”
And Project MERCCURI was born.
“We spoke about doing something big,” Cavalier said blithely. “I offered to help him gather a few thousand samples.” With help from another UC Davis scientist,Wendy Davis, also a Science Cheerleader, they fast-tracked a proposal, won the competition, then hit the ground running.
As head of Science Cheerleaders, Cavalier had access to NFL stadiums and NBA arenas across the country. She deployed her army of cheerleaders – most of whom work as full-time science professionals when they’re not cheering – to collect microbial samples swabbed by fans and players on the gridirons and the courts.
Even before the microbes lift off, Eisen and Cavalier have accomplished much of their intended mission.
They’ve not only encouraged stadiums full of regular people to think of “germs” in a new way, but made them into amateur investigators in a real rocket-science venture.
Find a Photo Gallery of the Science Cheerleaders in action, here on Philly.com.

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