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East Chapel Hill High School student announced as finalist in national science competition


Pristine Onuoha, an 11th-grade student at East Chapel Hill High School, poses for a portrait at East Chapel Hill High School on May 24, 2022. Onuoha is one of five national finalists in the Genes in Space challenge.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that NASA hosted the Genes in Space challenge. The competition is hosted by Boeing and miniPCR bio. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.  

East Chapel Hill High School junior Pristine Onuoha was announced as one of the five finalists in the Genes in Space challenge on May 16. 

Genes in Space is a national competition run by a collaboration between Boeing and miniPCR bio for seventh to 12th graders. In the challenge, students must design an experiment that relates to an issue about space’s effect on DNA. The winner’s proposed experiment will be tested on the International Space Station.

Onuoha said she has loved science and biology since she was a kid. She learned about the competition through East Chapel Hill High School’s Women in STEM club.

When she first learned about the competition, Onuoha read up on a study about Scott and Mark Kelly, a set of identical twins. The study compared the brothers' body functions because Scott Kelly spent a year in space while Mark did not. 

The study found that Scott Kelly's telomeres were lengthened when he was in space. However, his telomeres shortened when he returned to Earth.

According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, telomeres are the region of "repetitive DNA sequences at the end of a chromosome." 

They protect the ends of chromosomes from becoming frayed or tangled.

“When I heard that the telomeres in space actually lengthen, my mind was just blown,” Onuoha said. 

After considering the research, Onuoha hypothesized that the additional stressors in space cause a reduction in the population of cells and more stem cells are generated to replace them.

Onuoha's proposed experiment would analyze the relationship between stem cell populations and telomere length in the white blood cells of astronauts. In her experiment, she would measure the levels of stem cells that turn into white blood cells using a specific protein marker that is found on the cell surface. 

She said that stem cells have longer telomeres initially, and the cells they eventually turn into would also have longer telomeres, resulting in an astronaut's body cells having longer telomeres overall when compared to someone on Earth. 

She said longer telomeres are associated with being younger because telomeres shorten as you age. However, longer telomeres are also associated with certain cancers.

Onuoha said that her proposal is just the stepping stone for future research to be conducted, but she is hopeful that it can be used in future space flights.

“We're still trying to figure out if these things are actually feasible," she said. "I feel like my project would help answer that question.”

Kimberly Manning, Onuoha’s Advanced Placement Biology teacher, is her mentor for the competition. She said she believes Onuoha’s experiment is relevant in today's world and could be especially beneficial to the medical field.

Manning said she’s not surprised that Onuoha was a finalist. She admires Onuoha’s driven personality and how her genuine desire to learn led to her applying to the Genes in Space Challenge. 

“She has unlimited potential,” Manning said. “I think that as she moves forward in this competition, she will ask the relevant questions that she needs to refine her experiment to make it even more cogent.”

Joshua Hartzog, another AP Biology teacher at East Chapel Hill High School, said he admires Onuoha’s desire to learn.

“I think Pristine is the kind of student that we, as teachers, want to see,” he said.

Now that she is a finalist, Onuoha said she is excited to work with Manning to make her proposal the best it can be.

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The winners of the Genes in Space Challenge will be announced on July 28, 2022.

@DTHCityState |

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Onuoha received feedback on her project from Joshua Hartzog. She received feedback from Hartzog on a different project. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.