Westport siblings’ experiment tackles space travel challenges

WESTPORT – Space is an alluring and fascinating frontier that few get to explore. But for two Westport siblings a dream of many became a reality.

Ruby and Simon Meyers, both 14 and students at Pierrepont School in Westport, recently received the Junior Scientist Award from Genes in Space, an annual competition that, according to Outreach Coordinator Kathleen Polutchko, “challenges students to solve big-picture problems faced by space travelers. ”

The contest is available for students grades seven through 12 to design DNA-oriented experiments for the International Space Station – and one lucky winner gets their experiment carried out by astronauts.

“I have always had a strong passion for science,” Ruby Meyers said, “something that really took shape when I studied topics in chemistry with my science teacher, Peniel Dimberu, several years ago.”

Out of the 250 applications within their age group, only five won the Junior Scientist Awards, including the Meyers siblings. Their project – investigating the role of antioxidants in mitigating oxidative stress in space – was selected for the space station.

In their biology class this year, the siblings studied the parts of the cell and were particularly interested in the mitochondria. After school, the duo participated in the Genes in Space club. There, they learned about the various effects of the environment in space, including microgravity. It has been found that microgravity can lower the expression levels of genes, such as ones called Cox5A, which is essential for the mitochondria to function.

For their topic, they decided to test whether the antioxidant called N-acetyl cysteine ​​could mitigate the oxidative stress in space that likely causes lower Cox5A expression levels, which leads to mitochondrial dysfunction.

The process for the duo began with selecting a topic. Then, they proposed a hypothesis and came up with an experiment to conduct in space, which addresses challenges within space travel. Their experiment also needed to include one or more tools provided in the Genes in Space toolkit.

“Not only did we learn so much about how our bodies react to the effects of space, and about the specific genes and cells involved in our project, but we were also able to practice constructing a sound experimental plan,” Ruby Meyers said. “This process requires a lot of research and piecing together of details critical to our experiment.”

It also took a bit.

“We worked through many steps as we designed our experiment, then critically assessed it, and then re-wrote our proposal again and again,” Simon Meyers said.

The Meyers were the only duo in their category to win an award.

“Simon and I are able to feed off of each other’s thoughts so easily and writing our proposal became so much easier with my brother,” Ruby Meyers said.

“It’s always great to have multiple minds thinking on the same thing,” Simon Meyers said, “but I particularly like working with my sister because together, we collaborate well on thoughts, think through our ideas, and solve problems.”

Simon and Ruby also thanked Dimberu, who also leads the Genes in Space club, for his help with the proposal, insight and encouragement.

“Peniel really inspires a love for any topics he is teaching, and so I was lucky to have him for biology this year,” Ruby Meyers said.

She said she was surprised when she won the award and was happy to find out the proposal had been chosen among the many applicants.

Simon Meyers said that he was curious about constructing the experiment and writing the proposal, so he did not think about winning an award and said it was more about the project experience.

“I did feel proud of myself for the work we put into the project, and I am also sure there were many other wonderful and deserving projects as well,” he said.

With the award, the duo also received certificates, medals and Genes in Space merchandise. Their school also received a miniPCR kit and a P51 Fluorescence Biotechnology Kit. Some of that same technology is used in the International Space Station.

Ruby and Simon both said that they plan to further their biology studies. Ruby Meyers wants to submit another proposal to Genes in Space next year. Simon Meyers said he will attend a three-week biological research program in Boston this summer.

For more information about Genes in Space and the projects, head to genesinspace.org.

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