Student experiment on ISS to test contamination technology

Boeing-sponsored Genes in Space research launches to the International Space Station to test novel biosensor tech.

July 14, 2022 in Space

Selin Kocalar, who won the 2021 Genes in Space contest sponsored by Boeing, evaluates samples that will be used in her experiment, which launched to the International Space Station on Thursday.

Genes in Space photo

Student Selin Kocalar traveled from her California home to Kennedy Space Center in Florida this week to see her research project lift off on Thursday to the International Space Station, where astronauts will perform the experiment she designed to test a new biosensor technology.

Kocalar, 18 and about to begin college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was a high school student at Leigh High School in San Jose, California, when her proposal won the 2021 round of the Boeing-sponsored Genes in Space contest. The contest calls for students in 7th grade through high school to design detailed experiments that aim to decipher some of the mysteries about travel by astronauts to deep space destinations. As suggested by the name of the program, the experiments use tools that look for changes at the cellular level.

A new technology called BioBits is the centerpiece of Kocalar’s research. Never used in space before, the technology synthesizes proteins outside their normal environments. Kocalar’s work should reveal whether the novel approach can reveal contaminants in drinking water. The technology may also be key to create medicines on-demand in many environments ranging from spacecraft on their way to Mars to homes on Earth.

“This is the kind of experiment we had in mind when we started Genes in Space — one that can demonstrate a technological innovation that ultimately improves life on Earth,” said Boeing’s Scott Copeland, a co-founder of the Genes in Space program.

Kocalar’s experiment will be the ninth of the Genes in Space series of research performed by astronauts aboard the ISS. Previous research has shown the potential of genetic-level investigations to see how cells adapt to the space environment and what kinds of countermeasures astronauts may use in the future to reduce damage to the bodies that comes with long-term exposure to weightlessness and other conditions unique to space travel.

The approach by Genes in Space has also been used to see what kind of microbes grow inside the orbiting laboratory. Much of the research has led to publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

“We’ve seen from this research that these students are focusing on experimentation that is on-par with professional researchers and is really going after the problems that NASA most wants to see answered,” said Boeing’s Kevin Foley, also a co-founder of the Genes in Space program.

The launch marks a busy month for the program which will select in late July the winner of the 2022 round of the competition. Student finalists will present their proposals to scientific professionals during the ISS Research and Development Conference.

Selin Kocalar tours NASA's Kennedy Space Center prior to the launch of her Genes in Space experiment to the International Space Station.


Selin Kocalar watches the launch of the CRS-25 Cargo Resupply mission to the International Space Station on Thursday night at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.