Teens send experiments out of this world
From the time she was a child, Anna-Sophia Boguraev has had her eye on space. When she was 4, she built a cardboard rocket ship. She asked a lot of questions, loved looking at the stars and was set on getting a PhD long before most kids knew what that meant. The daughter of two computer science researchers, Boguraev dreamed of becoming an author, an animator, an astronaut—and even the sun, until she was informed that was not an option. Her fifth grade science teacher was unfailingly supportive and helped Boguraev connect her creativity to her love of science. At Fox Lane High School in Bedford, New York, Boguraev took advanced science classes and read extensively outside the classroom. When she was curious about an issue, she explored papers and had the scientific literacy to understand them. Then, in 2015 she came across a contest created and sponsored by Boeing that would change her life.
Several years earlier, Sebastian Kraves and Zeke Alvarez Saavedra, long-time researchers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were thinking about ways to make polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology more accessible. While PCR technology isn’t new, the machines used to analyze DNA are typically large and cumbersome, require a lot of power and cost thousands of dollars each.
Kraves’ and Alvarez Saavedra’s solution was the miniPCR, a soda can-sized device that costs only a few hundred dollars, can run on batteries and delivers robust and reproducible PCR results that help researchers quickly answer their genetics questions. This smaller machine could be programmed by a phone and easily operated by pilots, astronauts or students in unconventional laboratory settings, such as the depths of the ocean, outer space or classrooms.
“In an hour, PCR can scan the entire genome to find that needle in the haystack to learn the state of a single gene,” said Kraves. “And in the same hour, it can make billions of copies of that DNA sequence.”
In 2014, the miniPCR bio co-founders showed up with their new product at MassChallenge, a Boston startup accelerator program where they met Scott Copeland, Boeing’s director of International Space Station (ISS) research integration, and Kevin Foley, Boeing’s program director of commercial space. The Boeing colleagues were on the lookout for startups with products that could be brought to market faster through space experiments. And at the time, the ISS had a gap: Nobody was doing molecular biology experiments in orbit. Copeland and Foley were intrigued by the miniPCR: This innovation was small, compact, simple to operate and used little power—perfect for the ISS. But they weren’t sure exactly what researchers would do with the device on the space station. So Copeland and Foley asked the miniPCR founders for their suggestions about how the pocket-sized device would be best used in microgravity.
“We were aware of the breadth of that question,” said Kraves, who said he and Alvarez Saavedra felt intimidated thinking about how to respond to Boeing about potential areas of research. “These are real questions—about the origins of life, whether we’re alone in the universe, what deep space exploration does to our genetic material. These are incredibly big, open questions. And we felt a little uncomfortable with that responsibility.”
After multiple brainstorming sessions about how to move forward, Kraves and Alvarez Saavedra realized they had access to a much deeper reservoir of boundless creativity than they could muster between themselves. Who better to ask these big questions than teenagers?
In 2015, Boeing and miniPCR bio collaborated to launch Genes in Space, an annual science competition focused on inspiring young minds to solve real-world problems in the biological and physical sciences. “Boeing saw the technology and saw the potential,” Kraves said. “We turned that question around and passed it along to middle and high school students.”
The four founders decided that the contest would be open to students in grades 7-12 who would design pioneering DNA experiments for the ISS. Five finalists would enjoy mentoring from Harvard and MIT scientists and would receive biotechnology toolkits for their classrooms before presenting their proposals to the Genes in Space judges at the annual ISS Research & Development Conference.
The winning student would participate in a Space Biology Camp to prepare their DNA experiment for space travel and would then be flown to Florida to watch that experiment launch from Kennedy Space Center. On the ISS, the experiment would be carried out by astronauts using miniPCR technology—a pretty sweet prize for the winning student.
So when Boguraev came across the Genes in Space contest, she was excited to apply. Around that time, she was learning about T cells and T helper cells in her AP biology class, and she became curious about how astronauts can stay healthy in space. “If I ever found myself in space, I’d really prefer my immune system be working at full capacity,” she remembers thinking. Within a couple weeks, she had refined an experiment idea for the contest: To test the effect of cosmic radiation and microgravity on the immune system. She won the contest in the summer of 2015, its first year, shortly after she finished 11th grade. Boguraev, now a MD-PhD student at the Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) combined program, said that watching her experiment launch the following spring was a reminder that “the sky is no longer the limit.” She thinks about that often today. “When I’m buried under classwork and responsibilities, in the middle of seeing patients, 500 flash cards into a long review session, when nothing works in lab, I remember there are people above us, doing science in the sky,” she said. “My experiment, at some point, was part of that.”
Boguraev wants to be a doctor and researcher and is interested in how the devices and innovations that we design to work in low-resource settings on Earth can be adapted to meet medical needs on the ISS or in longer duration spaceflight; and how the space bioscience we’re doing now can be brought back to Earth and adapted for environments that may otherwise not have the medical resources. Along her path, she spent a summer working at NASA Ames in the Space Life Sciences Training Program and has spent time mentoring and supporting STEM students. She’s currently working in a chemical biology lab at Harvard, studying possible therapeutic and vaccine strategies for flaviviruses, the viral family that includes dengue virus and zika virus. Yet even in her advanced studies, some things haven’t changed: Boguraev will still talk your ear off about the newest space biology research, and she still loves looking at the sky. On clear nights, she drives out of the city, sits on the hood of her car, looks at the stars and thinks about her own trajectory. “Without Genes in Space,” she said, “I simply would not be here.”
Creative and cutting-edge experiments
Since the founding of the contest in 2015, Genes in Space has launched nine student experiments to the ISS. So far, more than 8,500 students have participated individually or in teams, submitting more than 4,200 Genes in Space proposals. The science is creative and cutting-edge; every winning experiment that has been submitted for peer reviewed journal articles has been accepted.
The program, which is funded by Boeing and miniPCR bio, with additional support from biotechnology company New England Biolabs, asks students to design original DNA experiments that address real-life challenges and opportunities in space exploration; submissions are judged on creative and scientific merit. Winning students have been responsible for space biology milestones including the first PCR in space and the first use of CRISPR gene-editing technology in space. Of course, every year brings hundreds of entries that never make it to the final round, and many of them are wildly creative; kids, after all, tend to think freely and feel less restricted by practicalities than adults do. One applicant, for example, learned that astronauts’ sense of taste and smell is diminished in space, so rather than treating this deficiency, he wanted to engineer vegetables with stronger flavors. In other cases, the problems these students are solving are ones that NASA already wants to solve, such as how gravity impacts the way cells repair themselves.
Below are some of the winners after Boguraev:
• Alia Al Mansoori won in 2017 for her experiment that looked at heat shock proteins and whether they would respond in the same way when cells are exposed to microgravity and radiation in the space environment. Al Mansoori always wanted to be an astronaut and remembers using a telescope as a child to track stars and planets in the night sky. Genes in Space taught her the rigor of the scientific process and the effort it takes to build a successful experiment. “My mentor taught me the foundations of designing experiments that fit together to piece different aspects of my project together,” she said, “such as choosing a model organism, including replicates and designing primers.” Al Mansoori is from Dubai—having won the contest’s first international edition, hosted in the United Arab Emirates—and she is currently an honors student studying molecular biology at the University of Edinburgh. On the side, she is investigating Martian clouds and their properties with a planetary physicist at the University of Colorado Boulder. She still dreams of becoming an astronaut.
• Kristoff Misquitta won in 2020 for his experiment laying the groundwork to understand whether astronauts respond differently, at the cellular level, to pharmaceutical treatments than people do on Earth. Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, Misquitta loved high-speed transportation—cars, trains and then airplanes. In third grade, he built a miniature solar-powered car; seeing it fly across the table at the flick of a switch ignited a lifelong curiosity. “I could never decide whether I preferred to be in the driver’s seat or back at the manufacturing plant, pondering all the nuts and bolts,” he said. “Looks like the engineer in me won.” He found the Genes in Space family to be incredibly warm, supportive and nurturing, and he hopes to one day pay that forward by helping others. He is currently a second-year student majoring in aerospace engineering at the MIT. He’s also a member of MIT Motorsports, where he writes simulations to inform high-level decision making and performance assessments of a Formula One-style racecar. He continues to research ways to advance our knowledge of space, most recently, by examining in-situ metal production on the lunar surface as part of MIT’s team in the NASA BIG Idea Challenge.
• Selin Kocalar won in 2021 for her project utilizing a biosensor called BioBits to test for water contamination aboard spacecraft. The daughter of immigrants from Turkey, who both work in tech-related positions, Kocalar wanted as a child to be a flight attendant or an archeologist. She has always found joy in discovery and innovation, and she learned the importance of collaborative science through Genes in Space. “As I was running experiments to test cell-free reaction design in my bedroom in California, I was collaborating with scientists across the country at miniPCR,” she said, “and together, we were able to merge our perspectives to develop a more creative experiment.” Kocalar is currently a first-year student at MIT pursuing her interests in synthetic biology through classes and research in a lab. In the future, she hopes to find more opportunities to engage with the space community and meet others interested in advancing the frontiers of science on and off planet Earth.
• Pristine Onuoha won in 2022 for a project aiming to understand the basis for telomere lengthening observed in space travelers. Born in Nigeria, the daughter of a nurse practitioner and a physical therapist, Onuoha has always been fascinated by the world around her. As a child in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, she dreamed of becoming a pediatrician and would jot questions in a notebook, such as, “Why can’t we regrow our limbs?” or ”Why aren’t viruses considered alive?” Although she is still waiting for her experiment to launch this year, she has already become more comfortable with the scientific process. “There were times when I came across a very tricky design challenge, such as when I needed to adapt my experiment to be implementable without astronaut samples,” she said. “Challenges like those prompted me to be more flexible and creative so that I could pursue a new path forward with my experiment.” She will start college in the fall and hopes to set off on a career path in research and medicine and continue working on space biology research that could help improve human health.
“Real actors in how science works”
To drive STEM education, Genes in Space offers virtual molecular biology seminars, which have so far reached 400 teachers across the United States. Through prize packages for its awardees, Genes in Space has equipped more than 200 schools with kits for hands-on biotech education. It also loans biotechnology equipment to other schools through a program called Lab in a Box, which has reached more than 7,800 students. These classroom programs have helped get the word out about Genes in Space; about 90 percent of the applicants find out about the competition through their teachers. At the end of the day, Copeland said, the goal is to help the next generation of engineers and scientists who are interested in space. “They’ll be running our company in the future,” he said.
Copeland said he’s endlessly amazed by the students and their depth of research and preparation during the process; some even submit to the contest in multiple years, and it’s often hard to select a single winner.
The mentorships are a critical piece of Genes in Space. When finalists are named each year, there’s a huge gap between the ideas and launchable experiments, said program lead Katy Martin. “We don’t just hand the students a miniPCR device,” she said. “They need more support to get the idea off the ground. It takes a lot of trial and error.” The Genes in Space team connects all finalists with mentors who are practicing science and who help students translate their vision to how it would look in a lab.
“Without the mentorships, Genes in Space wouldn’t be possible,” Copeland said. “These passionate volunteer mentors help move the finalists’ projects along and prepare students to not only test their experiments but to engage with the public.”
Kraves added that in science, one can only be successful with the success of their elders. “They work together for two months,” he said of the students and mentors, “and end up forming lifelong relationships.”
For the winning student, the Genes in Space program offers a chance to experience a complete research lifecycle: formulating a question, designing and testing experiments and translating their complex scientific pursuits to something people can understand on a basic level. “These kids are not just passive recipients of facts,” Kraves said. “They become real actors in how science works. They participate in the generation of new knowledge.”
Kraves said he’s blown away by the passion and intelligence of kids who enter the contest. He particularly loves seeing applicants from vocational schools end up in the finals and present on par with kids from some of the country’s top high schools. He isn’t alone in being wowed and inspired by some of the Genes in Space contestants and winners; his co-founders echo his amazement and delight in working with some of the most creative and brightest teenagers in the world. Even the astronauts who perform the students’ experiments on the space station have been impressed.
“The astronauts feel very connected to the students and sometimes even come to visit us,” said Kraves, who isn’t too proud to admit that—even as an adult—he looks at astronauts with awe. “I’ve always thought of them as unreachable because they’re these incredibly skilled individuals,” he said. “When I’ve had the chance to meet them, it’s pretty amazing,” he said, laughing. “Like hanging out with Taylor Swift and Michael Jordan for STEM nerds.”
The 2023 Genes in Space competition will close April 17. Contest participation does not require specialized equipment and is free to enter. Proposals may be submitted by individual students or pairs. All submissions must use the ISS as a testbed for space exploration. The application is available at www.genesinspace.org.