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Genes in Space students speak

Hello, we’re one of the finalist teams in the 2016 Genes in Space competition. Our team was composed of three students: Dylan Barcelos, Kylie Cooper, and Mason Frizado. We’re from Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Fall River, Massachusetts. When our freshman and sophomore biology teacher, Liss O’Connell, told us about the contest, we were interested that PCR could be performed in space. We entered the first contest in 2015 and won an honorable mention, so we decided to try again this year and were ecstatic to hear that our idea landed us in the final five.

Our proposal was about horizontal gene transfer of antibiotic resistance in bacterial biofilms. Initially, we started with the interest of natural selection in space. After researching, we came across how bacterial cells can share favorable traits, like antibiotic resistance, through horizontal gene transfer in biofilms. Microgravity would be an important piece in the equation, for it’s been shown that biofilms develop more perfect 3D structures in this low gravity environment. We were interested to see if this communication and sharing of antibiotic resistance in biofilms would happen more efficiently in space.

This transfer of genes could potentially lead to dangerous bacterial infections, so we wondered if bacterial biofilms will become an issue to astronauts in long term space travel. Antibiotic resistance is already a relevant problem here on Earth. In a confined environment like the International Space Station, the spread of dangerous disease would be even greater.

When chosen as finalists, the Genes in Space team introduced us to our mentor who would help us elaborate upon our idea: Dr. Martin Samuels of Harvard. He asked us helpful questions that prompted us to really think and guided us in the right direction. We were lucky enough to visit Harvard thanks to our close proximity, where we met other scientists that were intrigued by our proposal. It was a very rewarding opportunity to work closely with Dr. Samuels.

Our team had an amazing week at the ISS R&D Conference. We were able to meet astronauts and scientists from across the world that shared our passion for science. Being able to meet these people was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that inspired us, and the friendships we formed with the other teams are invaluable. Everyone who helped organize the competition were great, as well. We are extremely thankful that we were given the chance to experience the conference, take a tour of the JCVI facilities, and visit San Diego.

As for future contestants, we’d advise you to think about issues in science today. Most importantly, though, pick a topic that you’re really interested in. We put a lot of time and effort into to this competition, so we believe that it’s crucial to find a topic you’re dedicated to and are passionate about. Don’t be afraid if your idea sounds out of this world because you never know what the next giant leap for mankind will be.

– Dylan, Kylie, and Mason