When a four year old says they’re going to space, their mother smiles and tells them to clean up their crayons. When a seventeen year old tells their mother that they may be sending an experiment to the ISS and, oh, could you please drive me to Boston next week so I can present this crazy idea about astronauts, their immune systems, and PCR to a panel of space scientists, the reaction’s a little different.
After all, I was a normal high school student, with nothing more than a standard science education and an interest in the stars. After becoming involved with Genes in Space, I would go from reading about PCR in textbooks and using plastic bulb pipettes in my AP Biology classroom to phone calls and evenings in labs where I was performing every step, from the basic experimental design to the execution and troubleshooting of a PCR experiment that would go to space. It was a surreal experience, because I was doing real, relevant work in a scientific field that seemed almost like science fiction to many of my friends, but my specific work, the validation of PCR in space, relied on the reality that the ISS, though a marvel of human engineering, was, in some ways, less-biologically equipped than my high school classroom.
PCR is fundamental. That is clear from the textbooks I had in class, or from reading almost any biology paper. As we are all aware of, it’s a ubiquitous technique for obvious reasons. However, all of the fascinating research going on the space station was absent it. Any analysis that required DNA amplification also required a sample return, which limited the scope of investigations. The reliance on sample returns also limits the speed of data collection on spaceflight missions that leave low earth orbit. The solution? Hopefully, the miniPCR machine, whose small footprint and accessibility made it ideal for work on the ISS.
Our goal, then, was to prove that the technology designed for a terrestrial environment could perform at its best even in the microgravity environment we were about to introduce it to. As most science is, this work was inherently collaborative, and, being a High School student without access to my own lab made it even more so. Through months of collaboration with more experienced scientists, such as Holly Christensen, my mentor through Genes in Space, and the Giraldez Lab at Yale where a graduate student, Ashley Bonneau, taught me the necessary techniques to harvest DNA from the zebrafish we would eventually use, I learnt an enormous amount about how the scientific process works (and, often, how it doesn’t).
The experience of designing an experiment for the space station is both unfamiliar and deeply educational; most techniques and reagents are designed for Earth, and, outside of the assumed gravity and storage conditions, hundreds more variables arise that need to be controlled. Before we even got to the DNA amplification itself, we had to work closely with New England Biolabs to ensure that their polymerase would remain functional after weeks of storage in cold stowage but also not prematurely degrade the DNA that it was mixed with. Why couldn’t they be shipped separately and the reaction mixture assembled on board? Because, much like my high school science classroom, at the time of our paper, there were no functional micropipettes on the ISS.
The process of validating PCR on the ISS was an educational introduction, and valuable chance to contribute to, the rapidly-growing field of space life sciences. For now, maybe, the quintessential “space scientist” is still an degree-holding engineer, a position that is not to be scoffed at. We are quickly approaching a point, however, where opportunities are only limited by the bounds of an ever-expanding universe. Space is a new frontier for all kinds of scientists, or future scientists. There’s room for all of us: PCR machines, biologists, and High Schoolers alike. See that rocket, Mom? Way up there, that dot of light? That’s where my work is right now. Told you I was going to space!