Kristoff Misquitta Wins Sixth Annual Genes in Space Competition

Senior Kristoff Misquitta is the national winner of the 2020 Genes in Space contest, in which his experiment will be sent to the International Space Station in 2021.

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Senior Kristoff Misquitta won the sixth annual Genes in Space contest, in which his experiment will be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2021. And senior Sebastien Beurnier and sophomore Fu Chen won an honorable mention for their experimental proposal. Both teams will receive a miniPCR DNA Discovery System from Genes in Space for Stuyvesant.

Genes in Space is an annual national competition in which participants address challenges in space exploration through an experimental proposal involving the use of polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Proposals are evaluated on multiple factors. “The judges consider how essential it is that the PCR be conducted on the ISS—a strong proposal explains why this procedure cannot be done on Earth,” biology teacher Jessica Quenzer said in an e-mail interview. “The writer must convince the judges that this research question is worth investigating; the experimental design has merit; the potential results [have] a benefit to humanity and has the urgency to be conducted on the ISS within the next couple of years.”

Teams with the top five proposals are selected as finalists, and a panel of scientists from Genes in Space scrutinizes each team’s proposal at the Finalist Launchpad event, traditionally held at the ISS Research & Development Conference. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, both the final round and announcement of the national winner were conducted and livestreamed through Zoom.

Misquitta’s proposal analyzed the efficacy of medications in space. “Astronauts take a lot of medicine in space, as many as four medications per week, but the medications don't actually seem to be working as effectively as they would on Earth,” he said. “My proposal is essentially studying what's going on in the body when astronauts are taking medicine through the lens of a liver enzyme called cytochrome P-450 and basically looking at how their expression is changing in space. [T]hat can tell us the expression of the cytochrome P-450 genes, which produces enzymes, are changing in space; [and] that tells us how astronauts might be processing medication differently.”

He credited the inspiration behind his proposal to a statistic that he had come across. “[A]ccording to a study done over 79 shuttle missions, […] about one in five medication uses by astronauts were documented as not effective, which seemed really high—20 percent. And it seemed strange that little had been done about this, mostly because being on the ISS there's usually something you can do—there's a last resort of returning astronauts to Earth,” he said.

Misquitta, the third student at Stuyvesant to win the Genes in Space contest, had prepared extensively for the contest and was shocked to receive the news of his win. “It was total disbelief. It took me a good week to process it from the time of the announcement that I actually have a spot reserved on the ISS for my experiment to being able to interact with the people I've dreamed my whole life of working with,” Misquitta said. “I see Genes in Space as the culmination of a lot of dreams I've had since I was a child, […] and I think it's an experience I'll only get once in my lifetime.”

To prepare for the launch of his experiment at the ISS, Misquitta is working with a team of scientists to ensure that his experiment comes to fruition. “One of the aspects that Genes in Space encourages you not to think about when writing a proposal is feasibility,” Misquitta said. “We're going to try to focus on doing a larger portion on Earth because it's much easier with all the access to labs […] having astronauts do it in space, they need to train to do it first, and it's a lot of approvals to get through as well.”

Beurnier and Chen’s proposal, for which they won an honorable mention, focused on the epigenetic regulation of genes in developing mice embryos in space. “We wanted to do this experiment because no mammalian embryo has ever been grown beyond the blastula phase in space, and as this has obvious implications for future extraterrestrial exploration, we decided to choose this topic and research into a potential cause,” Chen said.

Both Chen and Beurnier found participating in the Genes in Space competition to be a rewarding experience. “It’s a really good way to learn a bit about space travel and what NASA’s doing and genetics in general. I think it’s a good way to be exposed to a certain part of scientific research,” Beurnier said.

Chen added, “You truly learn a lot from the experience, and your work right now as a high schooler could impact the future of science through the doctors who read your proposal.”

For future Stuyvesant students hoping to participate in the contest, Misquitta emphasized the importance of having perseverance and creativity when coming up with a proposal. “While you start researching, I guarantee it's going to feel like every topic that you could possibly propose has already been proposed and that there's no room left for an idea that's original. But keep in mind that if you do enough research, if you go to these science websites, read enough papers, explore textbooks, I can tell you there's going to be one more thing that no one has really thought of to explore,” Misquitta said. “And if you do find that one topic, it's going to be really compelling.”

As a mentor, Quenzer believes that the Genes in Space competition helps students build crucial skills in all fields. “I see Genes in Space as this incredible opportunity for students. It allows them to learn about and potentially use technology that did not exist when I was in high school. It teaches them how to write convincing proposals, public speaking, and networking,” she said. “These are invaluable skills. This contest opens doors. It is like grad school in miniature.”