By Wendy Sarubbi | June 2, 2014 12:25 pm

Dust may be a pesky part of everyday living for most of us, but in space, it’s a major obstacle in learning whether there is life on other planets. And a rising senior at the College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences will spend his summer helping NASA determine how to identify and battle dust in Florida’s atmosphere that may be altering experiments in space.

UCF’s Fernando Valbuena is one of five students across the state selected for the Florida Space Grant Consortium Internship Program that begins this month at Kennedy Space Center.

His research with NASA life scientist Dr. Andrew Schuerger is called “Aerobiology of Atmospheric Dusts Over Florida: A Possible Source of Contamination on Planetary Spacecraft.” It will examine  atmospheric dust that floats across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa, and attaches itself to the NASA spacecraft at Cape Canaveral. Valbuena and other researchers will begin taking air samples at the Cape in late June, just in time for Africa’s summer dust storms and will screen the dust for living organisms and pathogens. With that data, they can determine if the African dust storms during the summer pose a health issue for humans, plants, or animals, or a contamination threat for spacecrafts, which could potentially hinder future life searching missions to Mars.

“A big part of what NASA does is try to find traces of life on other planets,” Valbuena said. “They don’t want to bring back false positives if we’re cross-contaminating.” The research will provide valuable comparative data for NASA’s future missions to Mars.

Valbuena was born in Colombia and moved to the United States just five years ago. He’s always had a passion for science, recalling how he gazed at the stars at night from his rural hometown of Acacias. “I’ve always been very fascinated by the cosmos, since I was a child growing up in Colombia,” he said.  “Once I moved here for college, I was able to learn more about the microbial world.”

The NASA internship will allow him to combine his love of microbiology and astronomy and get a first experience with a large-scale research endeavor. “I want to be exposed to a very rigorous research environment,” Valbuena said. “So far, I have the knowledge of many techniques they’ll be using; now I want to learn how to think like a researcher.”

All five interns are from state universities in Florida and will each be doing different research projects at NASA. UCF has two interns – more than any other university. UCF environmental engineering major Kimberly Cranmore was also selected to study microgravity, and its effect on the innate immune system.

“This internship program is a great opportunity for students in Florida universities to get exposure to cutting-edge research,” said Space Florida President Frank DiBello.  “These internships offer an immersive experience that will give students a unique advantage when entering the work world.”

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