ITHACA, N.Y.—Three Ithaca High School students have rocketed to the top of a national competition calling on students from across the country to submit an experiment proposal for astronaut researchers to conduct on the International Space Station (ISS). 

Out of over 600 submissions, Annika Marschner, Benjamin Armstead and Nikol Miojevic have made it to the finals for the Genes in Space competition. Genes in Space is sponsored by the likes of Boeing, miniPCR, and the New England BioLabs.

Students participating in the competition needed to design an experiment that focused on DNA analysis to address the challenges and stress space travel puts on people and living things.

Understanding what spaceflight does to the human body is a field of study that is still in its early stages. One of the most remarkable studies conducted was on astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent a year in space and whose health was compared to his twin’s when he returned to earth. 

“As we’re staying up [in space] for longer amounts of time, we now have reason to care a lot more about how that long term exposure to what’s an inherently hostile environment will affect us. And then how to develop ways to protect us,” said Marschner.

Armstead added, “Especially with our aspirations of eventually going to Mars. The time spent [in space] is going to get even longer, and we’re going to be more outside Earth’s magnetosphere.”

From left to right: Benjamin Armstead, Annika Marschner, and Nikol Miojevic

The experiment submitted to the Genes in Space competition by Marschner, Armstead, and Miojevic was crafted to explore the effect that spaceflight has on the growth and development of neurons. They said that they found the inspiration for the idea by reading through scientific papers. Now, if they win the competition, their experiment will result in its own paper. Researchers on the ISS would perform their experiments and the three of them would follow through with writing a research paper with the results they’re given.

At the end of July, Marschner, Armstead, and Miojevic will be headed down to Washington D.C. where they’re going to present their proposal to a panel of judges at the ISS Research & Development Conference. They’re one of five teams in the finals.

The three highschool students give their thanks to their club supervisor and teacher at IHS, Arti Jewett, and to Dr. David Lin at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine for giving them special guidance as they worked on their proposal. Before going to the finals, they’ll have the help of researchers from MIT and Harvard to develop the presentation they’ll give in Washington. 

All three of them say the fact they’ve even gotten this far in the competition has been incredibly rewarding on it’s own. Unbelievable, shocking, and awesome, are how Marschner, Armstead, and Miojevic have dubbed the experience thus far.

“Just putting in your best effort and going through the process is part of the reward. I think that’s what I take away,” said Miojevic.

Though, the thought of winning is obviously very exciting to all three of them.

Marschner said that it would be “an honor to have someone who’s doing such important work up there who only has a finite amount of time to spend on research to be doing our research.”

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn