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Source: University of Waikato

Developing sensors to detect metals in the icy oceans of the moons which orbit Saturn, is about as far from a University of Waikato science lab as you can get.

But for University of Waikato, Master of Science and Chemistry student, Rosemary Swears, who has just returned from 10 weeks at NASA’s International Internship Programme, it was all part of a day’s work.

Rosemary was one of four New Zealand students selected for the internship, under a new agreement between space administration and the Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment. Students were based at the Ames Research Centre in Mountain View, California.

“We were working on things which will make a difference to humanity in 20 to 30 years from now. That’s an incredible feeling. Holding something in your hand that is going into space.”

Rosemary arrived at NASA with a project in mind but was thrown in the deep end on an electrochemistry project she hadn’t even heard of before.

“The glorious thing about the NASA internships is that space science isn’t mostly a specific field, it’s just science that happens to be in space,” says Rosemary.

At Waikato University her focus is on carbohydrate profiles and health benefits linked to New Zealand and Australian honeys. At NASA she had planned to focus on a bio-sensor for use in space, which could be used for improved monitoring of astronauts’ health.

Her NASA mentor found her another project however, and she ended up working on developing a sensor to detect and quantify trace metals in the liquid oceans that scientists believe exist on the moons orbiting Saturn.

“In general, developing a metal sensor for Enceladus (one of Saturn’s six moons) isn’t an awful lot different to developing a metal sensor for Earth,” says Rosemary.

The project did come with additional questions to consider however including; how can you make items light enough for space travel, and what chemicals would be needed to be transported with the sensors? Could they be made radiation proof, or would they need to be shielded?

“Like a lot of research there was a frustrating grind but there were also the blindingly awesome eureka moments and ultimately it was really rewarding to answer the questions.”

There were 200 applicants for the internship positions and Rosemary says she encourages other scientists to apply for the roles.

“There are biologists and microbiologists and chemists and earth scientists and geologists and materials engineers and electrical engineers, and that’s just in the single building I worked in.”

She says she is not sure how the internship will impact her future career but believes it may open doors for her in the future.

“While I was at Ames, I did manage to arrange a meeting with a rocket scientist I’d been wanting to meet for quite a while, and that has given me some concrete things to look into in the next few years. Right now, all I can say is it was fun, I made some connections, I picked up some ideas, and I learned a lot.”

MIL OSI New Zealand News