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Attleboro native, fellow students design food-growing terrariums for astronauts and those in need – The Sun Chronicle

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Attleboro native Ariel Shramko and fellow UMass Lowell colleagues stand in front of a terrarium prototype they built. From left are Gitesh Shewatker, Michelle Connolly, Shramko and Eliote Pirone.
This radish was picked from a test grow in a prototype terrarium.
Ariel Shramko

Ariel Shramko
Attleboro native Ariel Shramko and fellow UMass Lowell colleagues stand in front of a terrarium prototype they built. From left are Gitesh Shewatker, Michelle Connolly, Shramko and Eliote Pirone.
This radish was picked from a test grow in a prototype terrarium.
ATTLEBORO — When Ariel Shramko was about 5 years old she became fascinated by how nature works while listening to fairy tales at the Attleboro Public Library story hour.
The fascination led to scientific experiments growing moss and grass in peanut butter jars at her Attleboro home while in her teens and tracking their growth to determine how the ecosystem worked.
Now, the 20-year-old University of Massachusetts Lowell junior environmental engineering major is aiming to send a food-growing terrarium to accompany astronauts to Mars and beyond.
A prototype terrarium has earned Shramko and some of her classmates a spot on the top 25 U.S. submissions competing in NASA’s international Deep Space Food Challenge.
“We’re very excited,” said Shramko, who is the CEO of a startup company she and her classmates formed called the Auto Terra Project.
NASA is giving prizes ranging from $10,000 to $150,000 to contestants in the challenge and Shramko is also hoping the company will be offered a contract with the space agency.
Currently, NASA has plans to land astronauts on the moon by 2025, over 50 years after the Apollo missions, and eventually send them to Mars.
The Orion space capsule of the Artemis 1 test mission is on its way back to Earth after orbiting the moon and flying farther in space than any vehicle built to carry humans.
The capsule, with only test dummies onboard, is due to return to Earth on Dec. 11 after a 25-day mission.
NASA officials will be meeting with Shramko and her team soon to discuss their latest prototype for possible use as a food production system for up to four astronauts. It would be designed to last for three years as they travel to Mars and back.
Shramko says the self-contained, self-regulating terrariums are compact and portable enough for space travel. The team has also built a version to help people in urban areas experiencing food insecurity.
The terrariums can grow fresh, organic produce such as tomatoes, celery, spinach, green beans, mushrooms and potatoes — requiring no maintenance.
Shramko said the system built for use on Earth is designed to grow food using natural lighting systems and non-powered forms of humidity reduction, reducing the need to be connected to a power grid.
The terrariums were built by Shramko and her team: mechanical engineering graduate Eliot Pirone, electrical engineering and physics double major senior Michelle Connolly and computer engineering graduate student Gitesh Shewatker.
Before entering the Deep Space Food Challenge, they won several awards and $7,500 in prize money after entering the project in the DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge, UMass Lowell’s annual student entrepreneurship competition.
“Honestly, without that we would not have been able to enter the (Deep Space Food Challenge) competition,” Shramko said.
While aiming for the stars, she said her company also wants to fight world food insecurity by teaming up with food banks and non-profits using a terrarium built for use on Earth.
“We have two goals. One is to feed astronauts in space and the other is to help people here on Earth,” Shramko said.
The challenge may be just as daunting.
There are about 1.9 billion people suffering from moderate to severe food insecurity, she said, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports there are 38.3 million people in the United States who are food insecure.
Shramko said food insecurity due to environmental causes or supply chain or other issues can cause irreparable harm to children.
“It can affect how children do in school. It can cause a lot of anxiety and emotional issues,” she said. “It’s difficult to do well in school and it just perpetuates poverty.”
Shramko is an Attleboro native and was home schooled. Her father is a mechanical engineer and her mother was a chemical engineer before she retired.
While always fascinated with nature as a young child, Shramko said she became interested in ecosystems and how they worked. When she was about 14 she knew she wanted to be an environmental engineer.
“I was real interested in that field of study and looked into it more,” Shramko said.
Last year, she worked as an undergraduate research assistant with Distinguished University Professor Pradeep Kurup of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to test drinking water for lead and other heavy metals, as well as PFAS and other contaminants.
She also attended National Science Foundation conferences and gave presentations to high school students.
David Linton may be reached at 508-236-0338.
Ariel Shramko
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