Pristine Onuoha said if she was given the opportunity to personally travel to the International Space Station, she would pass.
“No, I think I’d rather stay on Earth,” said the rising East Chapel Hill senior. “I’d rather look at it from afar, because the more you learn about space, the more daunting it is.”
Do you know what else is daunting? Pitting your idea against 602 submissions from 1,175 students across the country, having it judged by a panel of professional scientists, educators, and researchers, and somehow having it selected to travel to the ISS where the experiment will be conducted by astronauts. NASA astronauts.
Onuoha won the eighth-national Genes in Space STEM competition, which was announced about two weeks ago in Washington, D.C. Her idea seeks to understand the mechanism behind telomere lengthening, a chromosomal change that has been observed in space travelers. Her experiment will be performed by astronauts aboard the ISS in 2023.
Telomeres are structures that protect DNA from damage, and shorten with age and wear. Surprisingly, telomere lengthening has been observed in space travelers, notably Astronaut Scott Kelly, the subject of NASA’s Twin Study. Onuoha’s experiment will explore the possibility that telomere lengthening is caused by a space-induced proliferation of stem cells — undifferentiated cells from which specialized body components arise and that typically have long telomeres.
Onuoha developed her proposal with guidance from her teacher, Kimberly Manning, and her mentor, Harvard University scientist Ana Karla Cepeda Diaz. In their company, Onuoha will travel to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to watch her experiment launch to space in 2023.
Onuoha said the final day of selection was nervewracking, and she couldn’t believe it when her name was called.
“We had one day when we had to do the presentations, so everybody went,” she said. “After that the judges had an hour to deliberate. Basically that day, everyone was stressed out wondering who was gonna win. And then the next day, in the morning, the winner was to be announced. Everyone was pretty anxious and we had lined up. When your name was announced, you would step forward to describe your project, and then you would go back off the stage. And then they started talking about this year’s winner, and that’s how I found out. It was a really crazy moment. I was in shock when they announced my name. I was like, ‘Really, was it me? And then I went up and they handed me my trophy, and that trophy is so big and heavy. It was a moment that I’ll remember for a long time.”
Onuoha and the other competitors spent four days in Washington, D.C., and spent one day exploring parts of the district, and getting to know the other teens. Onuoha’s father also made the trip with her.
After high school, Onuoha said she plans to pursue a career as a physician scientist because she has an interest in health care, medicine, and research.
Founded by Boeing and miniPCR bio, Genes in Space invites students in grades 7 through 12 to design biology experiments that address real-world challenges in space exploration. Previous contest winners have explored phenomena ranging from DNA repair to immune dysfunction that have achieved significant experimental milestones, including the first use of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing in space. The competition receives additional sponsorship from the ISS National Laboratory and New England Biolabs.