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Kids Interview Genes In Space Winner!

June 14th, 2017

2016 Genes in Space winner, Julian Rubinfien, watching his experiment launch into space. Photo credit: Boeing.

HTE Kids News was fortunate to connect with high-schooler, Julian Rubinfien, who won the Genes In Space contest for 2016. His science experiment was recently launched into space to be tested by astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). His experiment is about aging in space, specifically about a part of our genetic make-up called telomeres. Telomeres generally get shorter as we get older and his experiment will help us understand if our bodies age the same on Earth as in space.

We had 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders submit questions for Julian, who did a great job answering them! Thanks, Julian! And thanks to the kids for their amazing questions!

The Genes In Space contest is open to students in grades 7 – 12.

To learn the basics about telomeres, you can watch this YouTube video by ASAPScience .

You can learn more about Julian and his experiment below:


What is your hypothesis for what is going to happen to your project?  Eden, 3rd grade

Julian: Thanks for that question — my hypothesis (or theory about what the experiment might show) is that being in space will somehow change DNA, including the part called telomeres. But we really don’t know what kind of changes we might see, so we are ready for anything. We ve tested the project on Earth many times, but so many things are different in space (there s no gravity!) that all we can do is wait and see if the first part of the project works or not. We re hoping that it will work (then we would go on to the rest of the project), but if it doesn t work then we ll have to figure out where it went wrong and what actually happened to it when it was floating in space.


How does your project work? How are you going to conduct your experiment and what [did] you need to conduct it?  Alexander and Tessa, 3rd grade

Julian: The biggest part of my project is what we call amplification of DNA, which basically means making billions and billions of copies of DNA. In the project, we re making copies of the DNA on the tips of chromosomes, which are called telomeres. We put the telomeres in tubes with water and chemicals, and then we put the tubes in a small machine that s about half the size of a shoebox. The machine will copy and paste the telomeres billions and billions of times, which is important because it allows us to see the DNA! Since DNA is so small, we need a lot of it in order to look at it. I won t be doing the actual experiment because I m not allowed to go to space yet (unfortunately). Instead, an American astronaut will put the tubes in the machine for me while he or she is floating inside the space station.


How did you made the [fake, synthetic] DNA and what is it made out of? Also, if you find out that you age less then what will you do with the information?  Sophia, 4th grade

Julian: The synthetic DNA is made out of the exact same things as our DNA, except it doesn t come from humans. The way we make it is really complicated: it involves taking some DNA from bacteria and making some DNA in a test tube from basic chemicals and, after all of that, putting the pieces together. Your second question is a great one! Aging is really hard to understand. Some of the older people you know (maybe your grandparents) probably have gray hair and wrinkles, but those are just the signs that are easy to see. Inside our bodies, aging also means a million other small changes, like the heart getting weaker or the bones getting more brittle. It will be a long time before we really understand how aging works in space, so we don t yet know what we can do with that information. If you have any ideas, you should tell me!


What is the point of you studying this?  Harley, 3rd grade, Michaela, 5th grade

Julian: We want to look at these little pieces of DNA for a lot of reasons. The first reason has to do with astronauts. Our country wants to send humans to Mars, which is really ambitious. It takes a long time to travel to Mars (imagine a plane ride that lasts 9 months!), and an astronaut s body can experience weird problems (with the heart or bones, for example) when it s in space for that long. Studying telomeres can help us understand what causes some of these changes, because differences in how big telomeres are affects an astronaut s health. The second reason has to do with you and me! Studying telomeres in space teaches us about how telomeres work on Earth, too, which means we ll be able to understand more about what they do in non-astronaut people like all of us. That means (eventually) making new medicines for our grandparents!



Why and when did you decide that you wanted to study space and DNA?  Max, Kate, Lois, Sharyn, Lena and Luca, 5th grade

Julian: I knew I wanted to study DNA from the beginning of high school, but I never connected it to space until a year or so later, when I realized that studying DNA is really important for space exploration. That was exciting for me, because I think space is really, really cool, so I was happy connecting my love for DNA to the coolness of space!


How did you come up with the idea to do your experiment and how long will the experiment take?  Jack, 5th grade

Julian: I came up with the idea after reading science papers for many months. Each paper is like a book, except it s smaller, it has really big words that most people don t know, and you have to look at the pictures for a long time before you understand them. I had a different idea first, which also had to do with DNA but didn t have to do with telomeres or aging. I was really excited about the first idea, and I spent a long time planning out the experiment until I realized that another person had already done the experiment and I hadn t even known! If another person did it, that meant that my idea wasn t original, so it wouldn t be useful for other people. I was really sad about that for an entire weekend. Eventually I told myself I had to come up with another idea that I really liked, and I eventually did. The first part of the experiment will be done in a few weeks, and after that we ll be able to work on it more. Scientists can continue experimenting on telomeres in space for decades and they ll continue finding new information!


What was your motivation?  Emma, 5th grade and Shoam, 4th grade

Julian: My motivation wasn t anything tangible it was more of a feeling I had that I might be able to do something that no one had ever done before. When I was in middle school, there was a short period of time when I wanted to be a mountain climber and climb mountains that no one had ever climbed before. When I was planning out my experiment, I had a similar feeling. I really believed that I might be able to contribute something to science that no one had done yet, meaning that I would be helping scientists and astronauts do their jobs. It wasn t about doing something for myself, but doing something to help NASA with space exploration. How cool is that?

We’re not sure how many 16-year olds have had an astronaut congratulate them from space but it’s probably not many!

What was your first reaction when you found out that NASA accepted you? I really think that the project you came up with is super smart and really creative!  Alexandra, 4th grade

Julian: First of all, thank you! I was very excited when I found out that NASA was going to launch my experiment to space. It really convinced me that my project would be able to help NASA and its astronauts in some way, which made me feel like all the work I had done was worth it.


Did anyone help you make your invention? Who inspired you to make this invention?  Gabriela, 3rd grade

Julian: So, so many people helped me with my project. Launching something to space is really hard, so it takes a lot of people to work on it. Luckily, there are lots of scientists and companies working on research in space, so whenever a new experiment is planned, there are groups of people helping to set it up and supply equipment. One of the companies, MiniPCR, supplies the box that does the DNA replication. I made lots of friends at a lot of different places while working on this invention, and all my friends were nice enough to help me plan the experiments and work with NASA to launch them. The generous men and women at New England Biolabs (a really cool company in Massachusetts), for example, invited me to visit them for two days, when I prepared parts of my experiment. They do all their work on a beautiful piece of land with forests and gardens and castles (and also laboratories). Doesn t that sound like the all-time best place to work (except for space, of course)?


How will you know how someone’s body changes in space if you don’t test it on a human?  Mila, 3rd grade

Julian: This is a really, really good question thanks for asking it! It s something my friends and I have thought a lot about. You re right: there s no way to know exactly how a human body changes in space without studying a human body. We can use mice or human cells floating in water, but these are only substitutes for real humans. That s why, eventually, we d like to use my project on real, living astronauts. In the meantime, we ll study human cells in petri dishes.


Why does it [the telomeres] get short when you’re older?  Sienna, 3rd grade

Why does the chromosome get smaller when you grow up?  Valentina, 4th grade

Why do the ends of the chromosomes shrink when you get older?  Alex, 5th grade

Why are child chromosomes bigger than adults’?  Roland, 3rd grade

Julian: Telomeres get shorter for a lot of reasons, and we don t understand all of them completely. One reason is that every time a cell makes a copy of itself, which it has to do often, it has to copy all of its DNA. Because of the way the DNA is copied, the tips of chromosomes get shorter each time a cell reproduces. Another reason has to do with a cell s eating habits. When a cell eats its food, it has to digest it and make energy out of it. When it s making energy, it creates some byproducts that aren t so healthy. Some of these byproducts can actually float past the DNA in the cell and damage it, which can make telomeres shorter as well. Both of these processes happen more and more as we get older, so it makes sense that telomeres get shorter as we get older.


How many inches/centimeters of telomere would the average adult lose per month?  Kaia, 4th grade

My question is, if you could test my DNA, what would you find?  Jake, 4th grade

How big are the chromosome and telomeres of the average 50-year old human?  Sebastian, 4th grade

What happens when the telomeres end?  Cameron, 5th grade

Julian: All of these questions get into really interesting, complicated details. If you look really closely at the DNA in all of our cells, it turns out that telomeres are different lengths in different cells within our bodies! That means that the cells that make up our intestines might have shorter telomeres than the cells that make up our brains. The lengths of the telomeres in any cell also depend on how old the cell itself is, which is different from how old we are! Even in a 100-year old man, some of his cells will be brand new, biologically speaking.


If a human was born in space would they be formed differently?  Jacob, 3rd grade

Julian: This is such a cool question! Lots of really smart people have thought about this before, and almost everyone agrees that a human born in space would be different from us in meaningful ways. That doesn t necessarily mean that the space-born human would look different from us, but on the inside its organs (like its heart and lungs) might be shaped differently. What happens inside of its cells, including lots that have to do with DNA, might also be different from what happens inside of our cells. This is a really important question, because when people eventually go on long-distance space missions, a human will inevitably be born in space. No one really knows for sure how that will happen right now, though.


Dear Julian, I would want to know if any of our solar system is affecting our lives?  Kylie, 4th grade

Julian: Thanks for this, Kylie! It s these kinds of great questions that get people thinking about space exploration and what it means for all of us on Earth. Our solar system is everything to us! The Sun gives us the light that we use to see things, and the Moon gives us the movement of our oceans. The solar system is like our neighborhood, and Earth is our house. Based on the way that our bodies are made, Earth is the perfect house in the solar system for us to live in. It has the right temperature, the right pressure, and a million other perfect conditions. There are also some things floating around our solar system that aren t so good for us, like powerful radiation or asteroids. Earth protects us from these things, so we re safe in our everyday lives. When astronauts leave Earth, they have to protect themselves from those kinds of dangerous things. I m hoping to help astronauts do that with my own experiments.


What would happen if you put DNA in a pineapple so the pineapple would live?  Eliot, 4th grade

Julian: This is a question that I haven t thought of before thanks for asking it! Believe it or not, pineapples already have DNA, just like you and me. In fact, a pineapple has a lot of the same DNA as you and me. Once a pineapple is separated from its plant, it won t be able to live anymore, and even adding new pineapple DNA to it won t change that. All that DNA can do is allow something like a pineapple to live while it s still attached to its plant.

Julian watching his experiment launch into space!


Is science your favorite subject? And what sports do you play, if you play any? And what college are going to [or would like to go to and what would you like to study in college?]  Luke, 5th grade

Julian: I actually don t have a favorite subject! I love English and History just as much as science. I think that, to be a good scientist, you need to have a really good background in the humanities (that means literature, history, philosophy, and so on). Being a scientist isn t all about working in the lab or running machines. A lot of it is about working with other people, especially people who aren t scientists. That means it s important to share common ground with non-scientists, so it s really good to be a well-rounded person who can understand both the makeup of DNA and the causes of the Civil War! It s also good to be healthy and play sports. I love to sail; I m the captain of my school s sailing team, which sails on the Hudson River. I haven t applied to college yet, but I know I d like to study both sciences and humanities when I get there!


I want to be a scientist when I grow up, and I want to ask how can you do your research without all of your fancy equipment, how can you do your research daily, not in a lab?  Sasha, 5th grade

Julian: Thanks so much for this question, Sasha. I m so glad that you want to be a scientist (our country needs people like you!) and I asked this same question when I was your age. If you think about it, most fancy machines are only good for either of two things: looking at really tiny things (pieces of DNA), or looking at really big things (planets). For normal-sized things, your eyes work just fine! I d recommend that you start experimenting with the things around you: stuff like toothpaste, shampoo, or baking ingredients. Even without rare materials, I think you d be surprised what you can learn with solid experimental design.


How are you so smart? Bye.  Lexie, 3rd grade

How much time did it take you to become this intelligent, and how did you do it?  Salett, 5th grade

Julian: I promise I m not that smart. I ve been really, really lucky with the generosity of people around me. Aside from that, I ve always been a big reader; reading a lot will make anyone think more deeply.

How do you like school? What class did you take to learn about your experiment?  Paul and Lucas, 4th grade

Julian: I love school. I took a lot of biology classes in the last three years, but I worked on my experiments completely outside of those classes and school as a whole.


What’s your favorite thing about science?  Fallon, 5th grade

Julian: My favorite thing about science is that anyone can contribute to it. You don t have to be a professor to do significant scientific work!


Do you think you will go to space one day? [Would you want to and why?]  Do you want to be a NASA worker when you grow up, or something else?  Adam, Samantha, and Frances, 4th grade

Julian: I definitely want to be an astronaut! It s the coolest job out there. Most astronauts are military pilots, though, so it ll be tough for me unless I join the military. I m optimistic, though! I know that I want to contribute to space exploration in the future, even if I never become an astronaut, so I definitely want to work as a scientist at NASA at some point.


What is your favorite planet?  Sophia, 3rd grade

Julian: Earth! Don t get me wrong; I m all for space travel, and I think that humans should be working as hard as they can to explore other planets, but equally important is the preservation of our own home. I love our planet, but it has a lot of problems that aren t easy to fix. Humans aren t moving to another planet anytime soon, even if our astronauts eventually land on Mars. It s crucial that we solve problems like climate change, and our generation will be a big part of that.


What is your favorite book?  Cailyn, 4th grade

Julian: When I was in 4th grade my favorites were the first books in the Percy Jackson and Harry Potter series.


What is your favorite food?  Erica, 3rd grade

Julian: Pizza!

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