As the space shuttle program comes to a close, things at NASA are just gearing up for Brian Michal, Adriana Popa and Brian Tietz, three Case Western Reserve University students who were selected as members of the inaugural class of NASA Space Technology Research Fellows.

The fellowships provide a stipend, tuition and travel allowances to help the three students research and pursue masters or doctoral degrees at Case Western Reserve. Michal, Popa and Tietz will conduct most of their research on campus but will spend additional time at NASA research centers.

The NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship is part of NASA’s strategy to develop the technological foundation for its future science and exploration mission. Michal, Popa and Tietz are all conducting research that could be critical to NASA’s advancements.

“The end of the space shuttle program does not actually mean NASA will stop sending humans into space or that their explorations of the solar system will cease,” said Popa, who is in her first year of doctoral studies in the chemistry department under the supervision of Anna C. Samia. “They are developing technologies that are necessary for human exploration of the solar system, like refueling depots in orbit, solar electric propulsion, radiation protection and high-reliability life support systems.”

Popa’s nanoparticle research is intended to help with the advanced life support systems by improving the quality of water available to individuals in space, such as those on the International Space Station, as well as detect and remove unknown microbes for future explorations.

Tietz, who will earn his master’s degree in mechanical engineering this fall and will begin his PhD work during the fellowship, will be studying biologically inspired robotics. “A number of other students in my lab [led by Roger Quinn] are working on a legged control system based on the cockroach and stick insect nervous system, specifically the insect equivalent of our spinal cord,” Tietz explained. “I’m interested in decision making, so I’ll be working on a brain model that communicates with that system.”

Tietz’s goal during the fellowship is to help NASA develop “the most versatile robotic explorers they can.

Michal, a second year PhD student studying in the Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering under Stuart Rowan, is developing dynamic covalent polymers that can serve as stimuli-responsive “smart” materials, he explained.

“Shape morphing materials and materials for in-situ healing are two research areas NASA has identified that are addressed by my own research at Case,” Michal said. “Many of NASA’s goals for materials development coincided with my own research interests.”

There are 80 students in the inaugural class, with six coming from universities in Ohio; the other three fellows attend The Ohio State University. For more information on the fellowship, visit