Troy HS alums’ experiment to launch with SpaceX Crew-1

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.—Finsam Samson and Yujie Wang, both 19 years old, won the 2019 Genes in Space competition while students at Troy High School by designing an experiment to investigate the basis of spaceflight-induced cognitive impairment. Now, they will see that experiment launch to the International Space Station, where it will be conducted by astronauts.

The experiment will launch aboard NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission, the first crewed operational flight to the station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, scheduled to launch Saturday, Nov. 14. The flight will be the second crewed launch from U.S. soil since the final flight of the space shuttle program in 2011.

Samson and Wang, who now attend Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, respectively, won the 2019 Genes in Space competition in a competition of 789 proposals.

Interested in the cognitive changes reported by some astronauts following spaceflight, the team devised an experiment to monitor the expression of circadian genes, which regulate sleep and wakefulness. Dysregulation of the circadian system, as can occur in shift work disorder, is a side effect of long-duration space travel, and may lead to cognitive deficits. Developing workflows to monitor circadian dysregulation in astronauts will enable the design of effective safeguards as they continue long missions on the ISS and venture to deep space destinations such as Mars.

Samson and Wang designed their experiment with input from their mentor, Kutay Deniz Atabay, a postdoctoral researcher at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. In preparation for launch, the experiment was further developed by scientist Matt Smith of Harvard University and NASA scientists Sarah Rommel and Sarah Wallace.

Samson and Wang’s experiment will build on advances made by previous winners of the Genes in Space competition. Since its founding in 2015, Genes in Space has launched six winning student experiments to the space station. Past winners have been responsible for space biology milestones including the first use of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) DNA replication technology in space and the first instance of CRISPR gene editing in space. Genes in Space was founded by industry partners miniPCR bio, a biological science device maker in Cambridge, Mass., and Boeing, with additional support from the ISS U.S. National Laboratory, the nonprofit Math for America, and the Ipswitch, Mass.-based medical equipment maker New England Biolabs.

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