genomics and space Science: research Program and Competition

Interdisciplinary research yields some of the most exciting insight, inventions and innovations. It is also deeply challenging. It is as rewarding as it is difficult. To be successful, often requires exceedingly:

  • high levels of competency in multiple disciplines;
  • strong creative and critical thinking;
  • vision;
  • courage;
  • strong communication and collaboration skills; and
  • high levels of self discipline to remain remain empirically rooted while theoretically open minded.

As genome science continues to revolutionize the study of organic life, researchers are applying the scientific questions it makes feasible to explore human sustainability in space--a perennial human theme. Advances in molecular biology, genetics and genomics yield questions such as*:

  1. Is it feasible to "establish a reliable assay for measuring telomere length in space, to investigate potentially deleterious effects of deep space flight on chromosomes that could lead to premature aging in astronauts."--Julian Rubinfien
  2. Can PCR be used effectively "to study the mechanisms that cause reactivation of Epstein-Barr viruses (EBV) during spaceflight to shed light on a process that could pose serious health threats to astronauts"?--Amy Gu and Maria Byamana
  3. Can PCR help to identify "the genetic basis of increased bacterial virulence in microgravity...[does] horizontal gene transfer could contribute to antibiotic resistance in bacterial biofilms that develop under space conditions."?--[Dylan Marcelos, Kylie Cooper, and Mason Frizado]

What do these questions have in common? Three things. They have been developed by students in middle and high school. Each experiment involves polymerase chain reaction (PCR)--a method for amplifying/making many copies of a DNA segment to make it feasible to study it. And, each research design conveys the aspirations of a team of young people to have their research conducted at the International Space Station.

The Innovation Institute is an early adopter and champion of the DNA Discovery System invented by MiniPCR, Amplyus. Its work is first rate. To become familiar with genomics students have the opportunity to engage in PCR and electrophoresis to amplify and analyze DNA during this class. This would have been cost prohibitive without the DNA Discovery System technology invented by MiniPCR. This type of opportunity rarely occurs prior to university but should occur much earlier. It is a palpable way for young people to learn about and become inspired by genome science research and engineering possibilities. 

Students work in small teams to design their own research proposals and, if they wish, submit them to the 2017 Genes in Space Competition. The competition is used as a motivator--it makes it easy to set deadlines, stay focused, and remain excited about genome science! This class is not designed to teach students how to write a 'winning' research proposal. It is offered as a unique and important learning experience involving: 

  • identifying meaningful [out-of-this] real-world research questions
  •  learning high quality research design
  • increasing interdisciplinary scientific understanding (biology and physics)
  • innovating with concepts and their applications through science and engineering

Students who participated in the first iteration of this course in 2016 were highly self disciplined and did so in lieu of lunch! It proved to be an "intense," "fun," "difficult" and, for some,  "transformational" experience.

*These research proposal topics are quotes from three of the five student finalists in the Genes in Space Competition. For  more information, visit