June 4, 1999 Young researchers study driving skills and space medicine
John Glenn's return to orbit as a space shuttle crew member sparked national debate about age and space travel. At the University of Hawaii at Manoa, it gave new dimension to the remarkable research projects of a trio of undergraduate honors students.
The three poised young women major in biology and aspire to medical school. Megäan Clark is a youth symphony percussionist and emergency room volunteer. She fences, dances hula and participates in church activities, but spends most of her spare time these days as a medical research assistant in the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine's Geriatric Medicine Program. Her honors thesis explores individual differences in human neuromotor information processing. Kristi Arakaki manages a double major in biology and accounting and student jobs assisting faculty in both the medical and business schools. A runner, diver and hula dancer, she has presented her honors thesis research on age differences in emergency crash avoidance to the Hawaii Pacific Gerontological Society. Tomomi Billings, a native of Kobe, Japan, enjoys golf, speaks three languages and is investigating life span changes in the speed of behavior and movement control for her honors thesis.
All three students claim Associate Professor Max Vercruyssen as their mentor. Vercruyssen is interested in the development and decline of nervous system function across the life span. After age 70, he says, virtually all seniors lose their ability to judge the amount of time needed to clear an intersection to avoid a collision with an oncoming car. The various factors that affect driving ability differ greatly for teenagers and the elderly. Someone suffering from Parkinson's Disease may have sound vision and judgment but impaired motor control. Someone with early Alzheimer's may be a good driver but become confused about the destination. Such considerations determine what accommodations (adaptive technologies, ride-along navigators, etc.) are most appropriate for a given driver.
With the help of his young assistants, Vercruyssen and Karl Kim, UH professor of urban and regional planning, are analyzing driver behavior in all the vehicle collisions in Hawaii between 1986 and 1991. The goal is to develop screening measures that can determine fitness for driving. A computerized driving simulator that he developed is being tested with volunteers who range in age from 5 to 100 and in health from the unusually fit to individuals with mild dementia and mild Parkinson's Disease.
Where does John Glenn come in? Measures that can evaluate alertness, judgment and motor and cognitive skills related to operating an automobile can also be used to assess fitness-for-duty in the space shuttle, Vercruyssen says."The demands on the nervous system are similar."
Clark and Arakaki receive stipends from UH's Space Grant Fellowship Program to investigate issues in elder astronaut space medicine. (As a Japanese national, Billings isn't eligible for the federally funded program.) Administered by the UHM School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology and involving nine UH campuses, the Hawaii Space Grant Consortium is one of 52 across the nation supported by NASA to prepare future space scientists. The UH program annually offers undergraduate fellowships and traineeships. Recipients often come from engineering, mathematics and physical sciences. They also come from less obvious fields, including anthropology, ethnobotany and environmental sciences and science education.
At UH's Windward Community College, Thomas Young is researching aseptically grown vegetables for consumption in space. Leeward Community College's Kelly Uyehara and Stephanie Walkeapaa are developing a system for archiving images obtained from the campus' telescopes. At UH Hilo, Joanne Snow is trying to synthesize new chemical derivatives to support studies of carbon in extraterrestrial materials. In all, two dozen UH students received Space Grant support last spring to work on projects with faculty mentors.
See http://www.soest.hawaii.edu/spacegrant for information on the UH Space Grant program and fellowships.
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