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Four Utah graduate students have a chance to make their marks on space exploration as part of the latest class of NASA's Space Technology Research Fellowship.

The program selected 65 students whose research shows potential for use in NASA missions.

"The program is about engaging academia," said program executive Claudia Meyer. "Universities have long been held up as centers of innovation in our country. The program aims to tap into that."

The program has already awarded 128 grants since 2011, including to four Utah students.

"I've been working toward an award like this, trying to get into a prestigious fellowship, for 3½ years," said Thomas Hardin, a Brigham Young University student chosen to receive a grant. "It was a big goal achieved."

Hardin is researching how the properties of metal change when the material is bent to make products like spoons and cars. His findings would help NASA predict how durable their machines will be in space.

Hardin's interest in space predates his grad school years. In high school, he worked with the flight simulation machine at the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center in Pleasant Grove.

"I honestly think that's why NASA wanted me [for the fellowship], because of my space background," Hardin said. "My research isn't all that space-oriented."

Hardin is joined by BYU's Ezekiel Merriam, University of Utah student Joe Brink and Utah State University's Daniel Merkley.

Grant recipients are matched with a NASA researcher who will help them with their projects. Students then conduct their research on campus and in U.S. non-profit and NASA labs.

Amberly Jensen, a 2012 grant recipient from USU, conducted some of her research at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

"It was fun to go work hands-on in a bigger lab," Jensen said. "And to see how experienced scientists work through the same problems we have in our [university] lab."

Students can be awarded up to $68,000 per year for up to four years. The money covers all the research costs such as the student's salary and tuition.

"[Having tuition covered] makes it easier to focus on my research," said Merriam.

Grant money also covers perks like health insurance for the student and 10-week summer internships with NASA engineers at professional labs. The internships help students make sure they are developing technologies NASA can use.

"[NASA engineers] will tell me, 'Hey this is a problem we're having now. How can you help us fix it?'" Merriam said.

The grants provide funding specifically for students' research, giving them the freedom to pursue their own ideas.

"I feel a lot more invested in my project having conceived and funded it myself," said Ben Bunes, a University of Utah student and 2012 grant recipient who is conducting research at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

The U.'s Brink will work with omnimagnets, cubes containing three nested magnets that create controllable magnetic fields. Originally developed to maneuver medical robots, omnimagnets could be used to move robots in space.

"[The robots] could do a range of tasks," Brink said. "Anything from menial tasks that are tedious for astronauts to very dangerous tasks that would require astronauts to put on suits and go out into space."

Brink hopes the fellowship will springboard him into a career with space technology.

"I'm just getting started with NASA," Brink said. "I'm excited to see where it takes me."