Isabel Jiang, a high school senior from Northern California, is taking her scientific career to new heights as the most recent winner of the Genes in Space™ competition. As one of five finalists, she was selected as the 2023 winner after presenting her proposal at the 12th annual ISS Research and Development Conference (ISSRDC).
Founded by Boeing and miniPCR bio and supported by the ISS National Laboratory® and New England BioLabs, the Genes in Space program challenges students in grades 7 through 12 to propose spaceflight experiments that use biotechnology to address spaceflight challenges. Each year, the winning proposal is turned into a flight project that will be carried out by astronauts on the orbiting laboratory.
Jiang’s project, which will launch later this year, investigates the mechanisms that make latent viruses reactivate in space. She hypothesizes that spaceflight conditions, namely radiation exposure, can activate certain genetic elements called retrotransposons that can replicate themselves and lead to health problems if not regulated.
Below, Jiang discusses her experience as a student researcher in the Genes in Space program.
It’s amazing that as a high school student, you are sending research to the space station. How did you get involved with the Genes in Space program?
I found out about the program through my high school’s STEM club. We learned that a few students from another area high school placed as semifinalists. I first competed in 2022 with one of my friends, and we earned an honorable mention. I really enjoyed the experience and wanted to try again to see if there were other avenues that I could explore. So, I entered again this year, and you might say I made it a little further.
It sounds like you had more experience going into the competition the second time. What did you learn the first time that helped you?
I think it definitely helped in terms of the familiarity with the Genes in Space toolkit. The tools are really unique, and it took some time to get familiar with their functions, what they do, and what types of experiments you can run on them. So, the first year we competed, we had to do a lot of research on that. Whereas this year, I was able to really jump straight into it and work through more of the technical science rather than just trying to familiarize myself with the tools and the competition.
Designing an experiment for space sounds really exciting. Can you tell us a bit about your project?
My experiment is focused on studying the activation of retrotransposons and their behavior in space. Retrotransposons—often called “jumping genes”—are mobile elements of our DNA that can literally jump around within in our genome by copying and pasting themselves. This type of mobility can be disruptive to important genes related to human health. For example, if retrotransposons suddenly place themselves into a tumor suppressor gene, it would no longer be functional, and that individual would be more susceptible to risks of cancer.
On Earth, our bodies can normally prevent the activation of these retrotransposons, but I’m hypothesizing that in space that’s not the case. Factors like radiation and microgravity can cause our body’s internal control mechanisms to become dysregulated, activating retrotransposons, which can wreak absolute havoc in our genome.
That’s such an interesting research topic. How did you come up with the idea for your proposal and what has the experience been like since you won the competition?
So, the way I approached it was to research specific issues that I wanted to solve. I’d scroll through the NASA website, looking at what types of projects research groups were working on and what interested me, and I honestly was able to just take those ideas and then apply the Genes in Space toolkit to them. The Genes in Space tools are incredibly versatile in what they can do, and they have a lot of functionality. With that approach, I didn’t have to really restrict myself too much in the initial proposal that I wanted to submit.
Since I won, I’ve been working with the Genes in Space science team, which is based in Boston. We meet every other week to go over the experiment. I’ve also had the opportunity to do a few different media events. I went to Boston in December and gave a presentation at New England BioLabs headquarters. We also recorded a podcast there. It’s been super cool being able to share my experiences and share my experiment with other people.
It sounds like you have put a lot of work into your experiment. How has your project evolved over the past several months?
The initial proposal I submitted back in April was already very different from the proposal that I presented at ISSRDC in August, where I competed as a finalist to win this competition. And even that proposal is significantly different from what we’re actually launching into space. My experiment is now more focused on developing assays to be able to study retrotransposons in space, rather than simply studying them. I’m really excited about it though, because these assays can be used in a variety of applications in other fields of research as well.
What are your next steps as you’re preparing your experiment for launch?
We’ve solidified most of the science and the technical aspects of the project. So now we’re working more closely with the Boeing and ISS National Lab teams to focus more on the actual space aspect of it—things like temperature stability, will it survive the launch, and how do we get it ready to transport to the launch site. I have never seen a launch before, but I’m incredibly excited to be able to go down to Florida to see my own experiment launch.
Going into this, how much did you know about space-based research?
Space or rather space biology really wasn’t a field that I knew a lot about before Genes in Space, so I wanted to take a step further and explore science in space. It’s been a really cool field to be a part of, and it’s definitely not something that I would have known about without Genes in Space. I’m really thankful that the program was able to let me explore something new.
I can see that you have a passion for science. What is your favorite branch of science, and what do you hope to pursue in your career?
Overall, biology—it’s such a broad field, and I especially love human biology and medicine. Biology research never fails to fascinate me. However, I also love chemistry and physics—largely sparked by my chemistry and physics teachers at school, who made their respective branches (which, in my opinion, were very intimidating) understandable and relatable. I also like problem-solving and logic, so I enjoy that a large part of chemistry and physics is applying math to scientific concepts. In college, I definitely want to explore biochemistry and biophysics.
Right now, I’d say I want to be a physician scientist—someone who is a practicing doctor but also a scientist. I want to be able to continue doing work like I’ve been doing, maybe with my own lab, but also, I really like the more human part of medicine, and I want to be able to help people directly as a doctor.
What impact has your experience with Genes in Space had on your career goals?
I’ve developed a passion for research in recent years through a variety of experiences, but the opportunity to do research in space has definitely been something that pushed me further down that road. I’ve also been able to also see the wide capabilities of what you can do with a Ph.D. beyond traditional academia-affiliated jobs. My overall experience with Genes in Space has absolutely pushed me more toward a love for research, which I’m really thankful for.
What advice have you received during the process that was crucial to your success?
The combo of “have fun” and “remember, you’re still in high school,” which I heard from my mentor Aleks and other Genes in Space team members, helped me a lot—especially when prepping for my presentation at ISSRDC. It was easy to get lost in the scientific specifics and competitive premise of Genes in Space, but that advice put things into perspective. At the end of the day, I’m just a high schooler who had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share something I’m really excited about. Being reminded to relax and enjoy the process helped me put together a proposal that I truly enjoyed creating and was proud of, and I think it showed in my final presentation.
It seems like your mentor Aleks has played an integral part in your experience. Have you had the opportunity to pay that forward to younger students just starting in science?
Absolutely. As a leader of my school’s STEM club, we aim to provide our members with resources to pursue research. We hold workshops on how to read a journal article and how to design experiments. We also create databases of potential research competitions and summer research programs for our members to sift through. I’ve definitely loved being a part of that because, in my opinion at least, research can be really intimidating. And science in general is a very intimidating field to get into without outside help or mentorship, so I really liked being able to do that for some students at my school.
Who has been your biggest source of inspiration growing up?
My parents have definitely inspired me—they showed me that almost anything is possible if you put your mind to it. I wouldn’t be who I am today without them. Also, my teachers. They have always played a big role in my life and continue to do so today. Growing up, they sparked my love for learning and inspired me to explore all there is to learn, even beyond the classroom. My teachers have definitely been cheering me on through this process. I really appreciate all of their support, and I would not be here today without them. I hope I have been able to adequately express the role that they’ve played in my journey both as a scientist and, more importantly, a person. I’m incredibly grateful that they’ve been in my corner throughout the entirety of my high school experience.
The current Genes in Space competition is now open, and applications will be accepted until April 15, 2024. To learn more about the program and how to apply, visit the Genes in Space website.