Pristine Onuoha, a rising senior at East Chapel Hill High School, won the Genes in Space Challenge on July 28.
“I was in shock," Onuoha said. "I couldn't believe it was me.”
The competition allows 7th to 12th graders to propose experiments regarding genetic research in space that would be implemented on the International Space Station. Onuoha was named a finalist for the prize in May, and her winning experiment will be launched into space next year.
Onuoha said her initial research started by looking up the impacts of space on astronaut physiology. She learned about telomeres, which help prevent DNA strands from tangling or fraying.
Her initial proposal was focused on why telomeres lengthen in space, and she hopes that the experiment could lead to more accurate research on the subject.
“Then as I dug more around that, I realized that there wasn't a clear consensus on what the cause was,” she said. “So there was this gap in knowledge that I found really interesting and so I wanted to get to the bottom of it.”
If further research is helpful, she said it may be able to be applied to regenerative medicine, especially for Short Telomeres Syndrome. According to the National Library of Medicine, STS causes accelerated aging symptoms.
“That was really a big motivator for me — using it to help other people,” Onuoha said.
In her initial experiment, she said she planned to use stem cells to examine why astronauts' telomeres lengthen in space. Her hypothesis was that if stressors such as radiation caused cell death, then stem cells’ healing response would activate and proliferate, causing longer telomeres.
However, entering the finalist round, she said she was prohibited from using astronauts as samples in experiments.
She changed the experiment to use C. elegans, which is commonly used to study human processes. A 2006 experiment indicated that they developed slightly longer telomeres in space.
Onuoha’s mentor, Harvard graduate student Ana Karla Cepeda Diaz, helped her make the adjustments.
“So I'd say it's 50 percent coaching, the adaptation of the science to these new guidelines, and the other 50 percent is helping with the presentation,” Cepeda Diaz said.
Cepeda Diaz said she found Onuoha’s work to be creative and well-thought out.
Many people have submitted proposals regarding telomeres, she said, but Onuoha’s stood out.
“Essentially, her proposal says, ‘What if these measurements are wrong, or if the explanation for these experiments is not what we think it is?’" Cepeda Diaz said.
Cepeda Diaz said she was glad she was able to guide Onuoha through her presentation without overshadowing her voice.
“I don't know what paths she will pursue but I see a very capable young woman with lots of power to change the world and also a big responsibility that comes with that power,” Cepeda Diaz said. “And hopefully lots of happiness and I hope she is fulfilled by the path that she chooses to pursue. I think whatever it is, she will be fantastic at it.”
Matt Smith, one of the judges of the challenge, said Onuoha’s future looks exciting.
“Generally incredibly excited to see Pristine selected as a winner, excited to see her journey moving forward in science with Genes in Space and I'm excited to see the science and the results that come out of this,” he said.
Onuoha said she hopes to continue doing research and become a physician scientist.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the year of a study that indicated that astronauts developed slightly longer telomeres in space. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.
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