DES MOINES, Iowa – An experiment created by a non-traditional student at Des Moines Area Community College was part of a cargo-supply spacecraft launch over the weekend by NASA to the International Space Station.

The experiment will help NASA determine if a common earth algae could protect against eye degeneration from radiation – one of the first effects of prolonged space travel. DMACC Biology Professor Julie Gonzalez said the NASA project is one of many opportunities people may not associate with a community college.

“It’s not unique; there’s lots of things at DMACC that are very much out-of-the-box, not what people really imagine or think of when they think of community college,” Gonzalez said. “But across all of our of departments there’s always something interesting and exciting going on as well.”

The algae experiment was the brainchild of Lyndsay Baker, who submitted a research proposal to NASA while she was a student in DMACC’s Biotechnology Program. Her proposal was funded through NASA’s Community College Aerospace Scholars Program.

The 47-year-old Baker said she came up with the idea for the experiment following NASA’s first-of-its kind “Twins Study.” NASA compared DNA and other changes that occurred to astronaut Scott Kelly while aboard the International Space Station for nearly a year, to his identical twin brother, who remained on Earth. They noted changes to the astronaut’s eyes due to radiation exposure.

Baker’s experiment could help determine if the algae can produce an antioxidant that might protect eyes during prolonged space travel.

“If there’s any type of preventative measures – either beforehand or along the journey – and it is beneficial for the eye and bone health as we’re heading to Mars, I just think that would be hugely important,” Baker said.

Baker, now an employee of Kemin Industries in Des Moines, described herself as a “middle-aged mom” who enrolled at DMACC with no expectation that she would get a chance to work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.