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Penn State statistician mentors local high school students to finals of Genes in Space challenge
18 December 2019

Qunhua Li with high school team and astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor

Every year, the Genes in Space challenge gives middle and high school students the chance to compete to have an experiment that they designed performed by astronauts on the International Space Station. The annual competition attracts curious young minds of the nation and tests their ability to design DNA-related experiments that address real-world challenges in space exploration.

State College Area High School students Claire Jin, Tori Sodeinde and Jessica Zhang designed an experiment to tackle one of the biggest health challenges in space exploration, curbing bone density loss caused by weightlessness in future space travelers. The team was selected as a finalist out of 789 proposals, earning them one of five spots in the national competition that was held at the International Space Station R&D conference in Atlanta earlier this summer. The team was advised Qunhua Li, an associate professor of statistics at Penn State.

“For the past two months, after they were selected as a finalist, I’ve been helping the students prepare for the competition, along with the mentor assigned by the competition organizer, Kiana Mohajeri, a PhD student in biological and biomedical science at Harvard University,” said Li. “The students needed to give an in-depth and detailed experimental design presentation that carries the scientific rigor at a PhD level and defend their experimental design in front of educators and scientists from NASA, NIH, miniPCR, Boeing, New England BioLabs, Math for America, and the U.S. National Laboratory on the International Space Station.”

When asked if mentoring the high school students proved to be challenging compared to working with college students, Li pointed out that while college students may have a broader understanding of the research field, the high school students were very motivated to understand the science. In fact, the level of specificity in the research meant that there couldn’t be much of a knowledge difference at all. To help the high school students close the gap, Li mentioned that she gave them a crash course on genomics, helped them find review papers to read, and helped them rehearse the presentation with graduate students and researchers at Penn State.

“I was pretty impressed with the work ethic of this group of kids,” said Li.

The team of high schoolers was seeking to understand the molecular mechanisms that lead to bone loss in space using the latest single-cell technologies, such as single-cell RNA-seq and spatial transcriptomics. By using single-cell technology, which was named the technology of the year by the journal Nature in 2013, the student’s proposed study would provide an unprecedented resolution to our understanding of how the environment during space travel alters gene expression in bone. The insights from the proposed study could help to alleviate astronauts’ health complications in space.

Among the judges, participants, and mentors at the competition, was astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor.  Auñón-Chancellor spoke to the State College team about how she had lost 10% of her bone density while in space.

Reflecting on the people she met and her experience as a mentor for the competition, Li advocated for an increase in the number of opportunities for the university to collaborate with the K-12 community through outreach. She pointed out that high school students can gain research experience while graduate students in NIH funded training programs can broaden their scientific communication skills. While this concept is still just an idea, Li is certain that it is important not to underestimate the drive of high school students, especially those given guidance and opportunity.

As for Jin, Sodeinde, and Zhang, they recently submitted their experimental design as an invited article to the Journal of Emerging Investigators, which is a peer-reviewed science journal publishing research by middle and high school scientists. Their article is available at the journal website.