National Genes in Space Competition Won by Sophomore Elizabeth Reizis

Sophomore Elizabeth Reizis won the National Genes in Space competition for her experiment on the effects of microgravity on immune system cell differentiation, marking Stuyvesant’s second win in a row.

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By Elizabeth Reizis

Sophomore Elizabeth Reizis’ experiment on the effects of microgravity on immune system cell differentiation tied for first place in the National Genes in Space competition, which concluded on June 20. Reizis shared the first place position with Sophia Chen from Lakeside, Washington, and both experiments will be performed on board the International Space Station (ISS) in June 2018.

Reizis’ victory marks the second year in a row a Stuyvesant student has won the competition. Senior Julian Rubinfien won first place in the 2016 Genes in Space competition, focusing on the adverse effects a change in telomere lengths have on aging.

Genes in Space, a competition for students in grades seven to 12, asks students to come up with an experimental proposal in which they attempt to address a challenge in space travel. In their proposals, students are required to show proper usage and understanding of polymerase chain reactions. They are then expected to use the ISS as the test site for the proposal.

Reizis’ proposal went through a rigorous selection process beginning in April of this year and ending in May with the announcement of 25 awardees. Among these was Stuyvesant senior Kai Hin Lui, who received an honorable mention. Reizis was then named one of five finalists and met with a Ph.D. mentor from Harvard to refine her proposal.

Finalists presented their ideas at the ISS Research and Development Conference in Washington, D.C., during mid-July. “As a usually shy person, the thought of presenting in front of a large audience and a panel of judges seemed absolutely terrifying. When I walked into the presentation room, I could feel my laser pointer shaking in my hands. But, when I started talking about the idea that I had worked on for so long, I realized that there was no need to overthink,” she said.

Reizis’ proposal addresses immunodeficiencies astronauts face during and after space travel. She designed her experiment to focus on the effect microgravity has on T-cell development. T-cells are a type of white blood cell that help defend the body from pathogens. They are able to recognize cancerous, infected, and foreign cells by use of protein receptors on their cell membranes.

To make a variety of T-cell receptors, different segments of DNA are cut out and switched around. The resulting DNA is a T-cell Receptor Excision Circle (TREC), circular strands of DNA formed from cut-out parts of a long strand of DNA of a developing T-cell.

“My objective is to study the rate of T-cell development by measuring the number of [TRECs] in the astronauts’ blood,” Reizis said.

The maturation of a T-cell will usually result in the production of only one TREC. By measuring the amount of TRECs in the blood, Reizis plans to find the rate of T-cell development in space.

Reizis and Rubinfien’s success in the competition has opened doors for them in the field. “I have had the chance to network and discuss future plans with many scientists all over, many of whom were very willing to assist me in finding internships and labs in their own or other fields,” Reizis said. “I’m incredibly grateful for all the possibilities that this competition has brought me.”

Both Reizis and Rubinfien credit honors biology teacher Jessica Quenzer for pushing them to apply for the competition and for helping them edit and refine their proposals. “After reading about the past winners and researching the current issues surrounding spaceflight, I was eager to write up my own draft of ideas,” Reizis said. “Ms. Quenzer encouraged our whole class to apply, and I decided that it was not an opportunity I wanted to miss and quickly sent in my research proposal.”

Quenzer hopes to continue this winning streak by continuing to encourage students to enter the Genes in Space competition. She plans to make the Genes in Space proposal a mandatory assignment.