UF/IFAS researcher wins global award for space life sciences

FERL AWARD 072016

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A UF/IFAS horticultural sciences professor, known worldwide for research on growing plants in space, has won the 2016 Jeffries Aerospace Medicine and Life Sciences Research Award.

The award is given to a member of the aerospace exploration community who embodies the innovation and insight exemplified by American physician, John Jeffries, who was the first person — back in 1786 — to utilize aeronautics to collect scientific data.

Robert Ferl, who researches how plants can grow in space, won the award. Specifically, Ferl was cited for conducting cutting-edge space biology research and for mentoring others in spaceflight research, pushing the boundaries of where biology can travel.

“I was surprised and enormously honored to win the award,” said Ferl, who was recognized this month in Vienna, Austria. “For a space biologist, recognition by the engineers — the rocket builders, the space suit designers, the people who plan the missions — is a huge honor that acknowledges the role of fundamental science in moving life into space.”

Ferl has worked for years with UF/IFAS horticultural sciences research professor Anna-Lisa Paul on experiments in which they’re trying to grow plants in space. Both are faculty members with the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Ferl is also director of the UF Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research.

“Science is all about understanding, and the pursuit of science is all about the journey,” Ferl said. “I am fortunate to have had wonderful colleagues, especially Anna-Lisa, be a part of that journey. None of the work in spaceflight research can be done alone, and in my case, Anna-Lisa shares the credit.”

“It is the spirit behind this award that makes it particularly compelling: to honor a pioneer who pushed the exploration envelope of his time,” Paul said.

The award is named for Jeffries, who recognized the balloon’s potential to be used to take that view to the next level – collect atmospheric data heretofore out of reach. The award, established in 1940 to honor the memory of Jeffries, recognizes outstanding people who carry on with this tradition. Jeffries’ scientific investigations were published in a “Narrative of Two Aerial Voyages” in 1786. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics bestows the award each year. 

Ferl pioneered the use of plants engineered to be real-time biological sensors of the space flight environment. He also contributed to the development of the imaging hardware that enabled those experiments on the International Space Station (ISS).

“Rob’s talent to see potential in new technology, novel science and even people, exemplifies the spirit of the Jefferies Award,” Paul said.

For the past few years, Ferl and his colleagues have been working toward an understanding of life in low earth orbit. The ISS serves as a laboratory for their experiments in which they probe the changes that happen when plants live in space.

“The next few years will see the expansion of space science beyond low earth orbit and toward the moon and Mars,” Ferl said. “I see a decade ahead where we will work toward an understanding of what life has to do to survive in the long distance and time frames associated with lunar and Martian missions.”

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Caption: UF/IFAS horticultural sciences professor Robert Ferl, known worldwide for research on growing plants in space, has won the 2016 Jeffries Aerospace Medicine and Life Sciences Research Award. Here, he is seen in Vienna, Austria, where he won the award this month. Ferl, who researches how plants can grow in space, was cited for conducting cutting-edge space biology research and for mentoring others in spaceflight research, pushing the boundaries of where biology can travel.

Credit: Courtesy Anna-Lisa Paul, UF/IFAS

By: Brad Buck, 352-294-3303, bradbuck@ufl.edu

Sources: Robert Ferl, 352-273-8030, robferl@ufl.edu

Anna-Lisa Paul, 352-273-4855, alp@ufl.edu