CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) — While most high school seniors will celebrate graduation this week one local teenager has her sights set even higher — space.
The next time a rocket launches a cargo capsule to the International Space Station, it will carry an experiment created by East Chapel Hill High School senior, Pristine Onuoha.
Onuoha spoke to CBS 17 from a hotel in Florida, where she traveled to watch the launch. It was rescheduled for Monday at 11:47 a.m. after being scrubbed twice over the weekend due to weather conditions.
“To think that an idea that originally started off in my head would be become a reality, actually getting launched to space and being carried out there, that’s so amazing to me,” Onuoha marveled.
Onuoha, who moved to the United States from Nigeria when she was five, developed an early interest in biology.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been really curious about the world,” she recalled.
She heard about the Genes In Space competition through her school’s Women In Stem club.
Marc Bliss is the program lead for Genes In Space. He said the national competition was co-founded by Boeing and biotech company, “miniPCR bio,” in 2015.
“Students from grade 7 to 12 submit their ideas for molecular biology experiments that take advantage of the environment of space and push our understanding of how living things react to conditions such as microgravity and radiation,” Bliss explained. “This year we had 820 proposals, some really creative experiments from all over the country.”
Onuoha took the top prize with a project proposal exploring how space affects stem cell production in relation to DNA changes seen in astronauts.
She became interested in this after seeing a study of twins which showed telomeres, which are repetitive DNA sequences capping the end of chromosomes, seemed to lengthen in space, whereas, on Earth, they shorten as people age. She wants to find out whether this is related to stem cell production in space.
Right now, though, she says researchers on the ISS don’t have a way to measure DNA while in space. Her research aims to change this.
“We worked to develop an experiment that will allow astronauts in space to detect DNA length differences,” she noted.
Scientists aboard the space station will carry out the research. Exploring this topic could one day provide insight into the aging process or cancer development.
Bliss said judges were impressed with her “ability to create an experiment that asks the right questions and produces a tool that will expand our understanding of future science as well.”
“It was honestly a dream come true,” said Onuoha, who will attend UNC-Chapel Hill as a Chancellor’s Science Scholar, after graduating from East Chapel Hill High School this week.
She hopes her work will not only lead to new scientific knowledge but inspire other young scientists.
“Don’t be afraid to pursue your passions,” she said. “Be brave.”