University of Central Florida student Fernando Valbuena spent his summer as an intern working on a scientific instrument to help scientists determine how dust storms transport potentially dangerous microscopic organisms across thousands of miles. He spent winter break eagerly awaiting early results.

The research team, led by University of Florida professor Andrew Schuerger, hopes to determine how bacteria and fungi hitch a ride on dust in Africa and whether they grow and evolve as they travel to Florida. Lessons learned from the Dust Atmospheric Recovery Technology (DART) project will be important as NASA plans for interplanetary travel. Scientists don’t want to inadvertently bring back something dangerous to Earth and they also don’t want to introduce something to an alien world that could hurt that environment either.

“We don’t want to worry anyone,” said Schuerger from his office at the Space Life Sciences Laboratory adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center. “These dust clouds have been coming over from Africa for eons. Truth is we breathe in thousands of particles every day and we’re OK. But we want to learn how dust transports bacteria and fungi. It’s of interest here, but what we learn will be even more important as we start traveling to asteroids and other planets.”

Valbuena, an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in biomedical sciences, said when he applied for the internship he wasn’t sure what he was going to get. He simply wanted to find out if research in a lab was something he could do for the rest of his life.  He had no idea when he landed the spot that he was one of only five students in the state to get an opportunity to work at Schuerger’s lab thanks to the NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium Internship Program.

“I think it’s pretty spectacular,” said the Bradenton resident. “I’ve learned so much about how research actually happens in a lab. And it’s pretty cool to be involved in something that could make a real difference.”

The instrument was placed underneath a small plane, which made several runs over parts of the Floridian coast in the past few months collecting dust samples. Now the team is reviewing some of the many samples collected. It will be months before all the samples are fully analyzed and conclusions made.

“I think the end result will be pretty amazing,” Valbuena said. “It was one heck of an internship. It did what I wanted, to see how research worked in the real world. But it did a lot more. So glad I got the opportunity to do it.”