February Science Cafe Examines UM/NASA Space Seeds Program

OXFORD, Miss. – The importance of botany to interplanetary explorations is the focus of this month’s installment of a monthly public science forum organized by the University of Mississippi Department of Physics and Astronomy.

The spring semester’s second meeting of the Oxford Science Cafe is set for 6 p.m. Feb. 19 at Lusa Pastry Cafe, 1120 North Lamar Ave. John Kiss, UM Graduate School dean and professor of biology, will discuss “My life with NASA: Why do we need plants to go to Mars?” The program is free and open to the public.

“Plants will be an important part of life support-systems (to generate oxygen) on the trip to Mars, and astronauts on a future Martian base will need to cultivate plants for part of their food supply,” Kiss said. “It is important for NASA and international space agencies to understand basic plant biology in order to develop these bioregenerative life-support systems.”Kiss’ 30-minute presentation will provide an overview of his work with NASA since 1987.

“I have served as principal investigator on six spaceflight projects to date, including experiments on the U.S. space shuttle, the Russian space station Mir and the International Space Station,” Kiss said. “I will review the results of our past experiments, as well as introduce our upcoming experiments on the ISS that will be launched this spring on the SpaceX rocket.”

As project director for TROPI (or “Analysis of a Novel Sensory Mechanism in Root Phototropism,” an experiment on the International Space Station to investigate the growth and development of plant seedlings under various gravity and lighting combinations spaceflight) from 2004 to 2010, he oversaw 36 scientists and engineers at four NASA centers and two centers of the European Space Agency. These efforts resulted in two successful projects on the ISS.

“One major focus of the current project is to better understand plant behavior in the reduced gravity such as is found on Mars,” Kiss said.

Kiss served 19 years as a faculty member at Miami University in Ohio and is internationally known for his research in botany and space technology, particularly for his studies of gravity and light perception mechanisms in plants. His prolific research activity has been funded by $5 million from more than a dozen funding agencies in the sciences, including NASA, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. He joined the UM faculty in 2012.

Kiss holds a doctoral degree from the Rutgers University in botany and plant physiology. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Georgetown University.

Vice chair of the International Committee on Space Research, Kiss also was deputy scientific organizer for “Gravity-related effects in plants” at the COSPAR meeting in Germany and served as main scientific organizer for the organization’s meetings in Paris and Japan.

Read more about the Oxford Science Cafe.