February 17, 2021

Moscow, Mushrooms, & Mars

The research of one #ExchangeAlumni could change the future of space travel.

Graham Shunk, a high school senior from North Carolina and exchange alumnus of the National Security Languages Initiative for Youth (NLSI-Y) program, is currently a finalist for NASA’s Grow Beyond Earth competition and has designed one of 5 winning prototypes of dense-agriculture systems for sustainably growing food in microgravity.

Graham has spent the past few years researching one of the most pressing questions in developing space travel to Mars: how do you protect astronauts from exposure to the Van Allen belts? These two swaths of intense radiation held around Earth by its magnetic field pose a life-threatening problem for astronauts engaging in extended space exploration.

Graham’s research began with Higher Orbits, an organization run by former astronaut trainer Michelle Lucas. Graham and his team proposed a project researching the shielding potential of fungal melanin to radiation, which was ultimately selected to be launched and tested aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Graham then began the difficult task of independently analyzing the raw data collected from the ISS, until he reached out to Stanford Postdoc research fellow Nils Averesch with a project collaboration proposal, which Nils accepted. “Most of the things I have been able to do have stemmed from an email,” Graham shared, adding, “It's a matter of seeking out your own opportunities and having the confidence and wherewithal to follow through.”

In July of 2020, after a year and a half of simulations examining the shielding capabilities of fungal melanin against different forms of radiation, the team published a preprint of their work. Russian National Television reached out soon after with interest in their project and its use of radioactive fungus from Chernobyl. With his knowledge of Russian, Graham took the lead and held an interview with them about the team’s research. Graham answered most of the interview questions in Russian, despite only having a handful of years of independent and classroom study under his belt. Graham attributes some of his success in communicating in Russian to NSLI-Y, saying that since the program, he noticed that his “language skills improved vastly” and that he could “speak with a better flow.”

Looking to the future, Graham hopes to someday utilize his Russian language skills to collaborate with Slavic engineers and astronauts involved in ISS projects. He acknowledged the role his NSLI-Y Russian experience has played in shaping his career trajectory, saying, “I think it really legitimized my ability to communicate with people around the world with something I’m passionate about, made me appreciate just how global the science community is, and made me think hard about working in Russia as an engineer with their space program.”