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Blast off! NC student’s gene experiment to be tested at the International Space Station

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International Space Station (copy)

Pristine Onuoha, a 17-year-old student from North Carolina, will travel next year to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Houston to watch astronauts travel to the International Space Station to test her experiment.

Seventeen-year-old Pristine Onuoha is still in disbelief that an experiment she developed is going to space.

Last month, she won the eighth Genes in Space contest after entering her idea to explore how astronauts’ chromosomes change in space. As part of her win, she will travel next year to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Houston to watch astronauts travel to the International Space Station to test her experiment.

“I get to launch an experiment to the ISS? I still have to process it,” Onuoha said with a laugh in a phone interview with The News & Observer.

The rising senior at East Chapel Hill High School was selected from a competitive field of 602 submissions from 1,175 students across the United States. She spent five months developing her experiment, and was selected as one of five finalists in May.

Onuoha’s proposal explores what causes the lengthening of telomeres, or the changes to chromosomes, in space and if stem cells can help with certain health conditions.

Onuoha’s fierce passion for biology — and her knowledge — exudes from her voice when she speaks about her work. The competition represented the first time she had researched the field of space biology. But the core of her work is simple: She wants to help people.

As plans for commercial space flight and for astronauts to go back to the moon and Mars are developed, Onuoha’s experiment is all the more timely. Though it still needs to be tested, she hopes it will be used as a stepping stone for future research and eventually applied to regenerative medicine on earth to help certain cancer patients.

“We’ve got to know if lengthening is helpful or may have some unforeseen side effects,” she said. “It’s all about helping keep astronauts safe.”

Interest in STEM

Genes in Space, founded in 2014 by miniPCR and Boeing, offers an opportunity for seventh through 12th graders across the country to develop a DNA experiment that addresses challenges in space travel and exploration.

Telomeres are found on the end of a strand of DNA to protect them from damage, Onuoha said. On Earth, they naturally shorten with age but for astronauts, the telomeres on their DNA tend to lengthen.

“Also, astronauts, they seem to quickly experience signs of degeneration. They have muscular dystrophy, loss of bone density and all these changes,” she said. “We didn’t know why this happens so I was really eager to get to the bottom of that.”

Astronauts are exposed to radiation that kills cells, she said. Her hypothesis seeks to find out if telomere lengthening is caused by space-induced proliferation of stem cells, which have naturally longer telomeres. One example of this was found in the NASA Twins Study, where astronaut Scott Kelly was sent to space and was found to have lengthened telomeres. His identical twin brother, astronaut Mark Kelly, stayed on earth to serve as a baseline for several experiments, and his telomeres remained the same.

Science teachers part a big role in helping reaffirm student’s interests in STEM, according to Sebastian Kraves, a biologist and co-founder of miniPCR bio, a company that makes tools for scientists. Genes in Space and miniPCR work with teachers through outreach initiatives to help them learn how to better prepare students.

Kimberly Manning, Onuoha’s biology teacher at East Chapel Hill, played the role of mentor and teacher. Onuoha first told Manning about the competition last year after learning about it through the Women in STEM club at the school.

“I said, ‘OK, what do you need?’” Manning said. “(Onuoha) already knew what she wanted to do. She had already mapped it out. I connected her with resources, there were other teachers that helped support her in the building. It became more apparent as we went on that we were talking about life-changing stuff here.”

Manning said she appreciated Onuoha staying late after school to further develop her proposal and team up with other students to talk about the work.

“It was as if she had a vision and knew exactly what she needed to do to execute and come out on top,” she said.

This was the second time Manning had a student enter a science competition and win big in the end.

“I’ve been so wonderfully blessed to have worked with all of these young ladies and young men,” she said. “It’s been very rewarding for me to step into this role as a mentor and as someone who can guide and direct these young people into their destinies.”

‘The time is now’

Every year, the contest gets submissions from more than 1,100 students, Kraves said. Students can participate alone or in teams. The competition’s finalists were blind-selected to a group of 30, Kraves said.

Then, five teams of students made the final cut of submissions in the competition and presented their ideas to a room full of astronauts, educators, scientists and technologists at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, D.C., on July 28.

Manning was with Onuoha at the conference and said it was amazing watching her in action.

“She knew her presentation inside and out, she asked the questions,” Manning said. “She has a passion for learning for the sake of learning. ... You don’t have students that generally do that. She has a passion for understanding and piecing things together and doing the deep-dive and it doesn’t matter how complex or how long it takes.”

From the beginning Onuoha’s experiment stood out for being straightforward, original and “elegant,” Kraves said. The question of telomere lengthening has been asked for a few years but there is more research to be done, he said.

Past winners of the competition have gone on to study space biology and have published peer reviews of their work.

“What’s really important is to learn how science is done,” Kraves said. “It’s incredibly important to empower students to think and act like real scientists and we make the resources available to them to do that. The time is now for students to solve scientific challenges.”

As Onuoha begins her senior year, she has begun filling out college applications and looks forward to developing her experiment. She will also be the vice president for the Women in STEM club at her school and is excited to share what she has learned.

“I want to apply research,” Onuoha said. “I never want to research to just be by itself and not be helpful to the world.”

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