By: Michel Kiflen
Biomedical Science, 3rd year
“Life, in it’s most fundamental sense, is a good design of polymers”, was how I started my 2017 University Rover Challenge (URC) presentation at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah desert.
Backtrack to the middle of summer 2016, I received an email from the Ryerson Rams Robotics (R3), a group of engineering students interested in building a Mars rover as as per the submission to the international URC competition. One of the requirements for the rover was to extract a soil sample and analyze it for evidence of life. Since as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by the possibility, regardless of the probability, that there could be other life forms waiting to be uncovered. R3’s email reignited childhood memories and sparked my curiosity and imagination.
Part of the URC required the rover to first, autonomously extract a soil sample, conduct probe tests (e.g. pH, electrical conductivity, temperature, humidity, etc.), and store the cache. Second, the rover had to secure the soil cache until further manual tests can be conducted at the command station. The idea behind the science task was to simulate a Mars mission with the goal of detecting life.
As one of the Science Leads of R3, I was given the responsibility to work with other engineers in the team to solve these two parts. However, this was a greater challenge that I anticipated, since the URC committee required the whole process be done in 20 minutes. To combat this issue, I sought the advice of Ryerson faculty and graduate students, most notably Dr. Kim Gilbride, Amir Tehrani, and other members of the Gilbride lab. Through the collaborative efforts of faculty, science students, engineers, and many others, we successfully created an automated module capable of soil extraction via an auger bit, probe tests, and sterile storage orchestrated by a robotic arm. Additionally, we were able to quantify DNA/RNA/protein content, as well as nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur, and potassium levels, all within 20 minutes.
After the rover and corresponding tests were completed, we flew to Salt Lake City, Utah and drove south to the MDRS, located in Hanksville, Utah. This region is one of the closest representations of the red planet. Reaching the MDRS is impossible without a vehicle. The entry is barred with many peaks and hills, with a single path intertwined between the terrain. It is easily one of the most remote, and extreme places I have visited. There is no cellphone service for kilometres and the closest clinic is a 90 minute helicopter ride away. Temperatures reach upwards of 40 ºC, making everyone vulnerable to severe heat exposure.
Nevertheless, we setup our mobile lab in the back of our trucks, whether we were in the arid desert or in the parking lot of our hotel, continuously practicing and timing our tests days leading up to the competition. Internet connection wasn’t very reliable, as a result, we printed as many articles and papers beforehand. After many trials and sleepless nights, our time to present had come.
“Life, in it’s most fundamental sense, is a good design of polymers”.
After a series of questions and comments from the judges, we scored 11th place, worldwide.
I believe our success at the URC was because all of us, engineers and science students, are truly passionate about the programs we are in. We had a keen interest to apply our learnt skill sets from the classroom to applications such as programming, building, and experimenting. I have been in the biomedical science program at Ryerson University for three years, and personally, I have found that it is far more than the typical life sciences program. It comprises of courses that require critical and innovative thinking, demonstrated by the non-traditional courses we are required to take such as experimental design and full-lab courses. Participating in the URC added an additional layer of application to my current skill set. Translating three years of theoretical knowledge about molecular biology to a 20 minute assays was pushing the boundaries of novel thinking, and I anticipate on extending my knowledge even further as I continue to grow and undertake more projects. I believe bridging the biomedical science program and initiatives such as these has, and will continue to provide the tools required to be successful in any task ahead.
As we packed our Rover back to Ryerson University and conducted a postmortem of our scores, I looked back at how participating in a challenge this large affects one’s learning. I have a strong biological research background, however, I lacked dexterity in robotics almost entirely. Joining this team allowed everyone, including myself to work in an interdisciplinary manner where our strengths are amplified. I learnt many engineering concepts such as materials physics when the team researched different building materials for the Rover. Additionally, I have a more thorough understanding of how our rover was programmed and how we communicated with the probe sensors when it was actively digging for soil in Utah. Next year, I plan to learn more about the Rover’s drive design. One of the tests it needs to withstand is movement in Marian terrain, hence, I would like to contribute to the construction of the frame. Working on this Rover under R3 is the largest project and leadership role I have undertaken in terms of work output and number of collaborators. It has therefore demanded a certain scheme to approach tasks. I learnt to keep a more rigorous calendar and schedule to ensure I am in sync with all four teams under R3. I have also developed stronger communication skills since I had to discuss this challenge with many of our faculty members and graduate students.
For my concluding remarks, I would like to mention that if you have the opportunity to participate in activities that come with huge challenges, you definitely should – you must. The experience of meeting students outside my faculty, let alone students from universities all around the world puts common interests and central themes into perspective. As for the URC, it is Mars and its eventual colonization. Mars is the future. My motivation to write an email to R3 was because I believe Mars is the next challenge that we need to tackle, and opportunities such as these contribute to the larger goal beyond all of us. We should strive for boundless human endeavour. From the dawn of human existence ~300,000 years ago, there is an intrinsic feeling, a motivation to explore and a craving to seek beyond the horizon. It is this ‘essential instinctual element’ that allowed us to disperse out of Africa and later cross the Beringian land bridge. Mars’ mystery represents fascination and excitement that extends beyond anything anyone has done.
“Maybe it’s a little early. Maybe the time is not quite yet. But those other worlds promising untold opportunities — beckon. Silently, they orbit the Sun, waiting.”
– Carl Sagan