Potomac Students Send Bacteria on a Space Mission

Girls at Bullis School won national competition to run an experiment on the International Space Station


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Amanda Kay (left) and Skylar Jordan, students at Bullis School in Potomac, explain the experiment that won a trip to the International Space Station.

Bethany Rodgers

The fluid-filled tubes that Amanda Kay and Skylar Jordan are keeping in a school classroom represent only half their investigation into how well bacteria can gobble iron ions out of contaminated water.

The students at Bullis School in Potomac, a private school serving grades two through twelve, are eager to check out the second part of their experiment. But it happens to be locked in low-Earth orbit at the moment.

Amanda, 17, and Skylar, 16, came up with one of 21 student science experiments that scored a ride to the International Space Station on Feb. 18. For the two high school juniors, it’s hard to imagine an astronaut picking up their experiment in microgravity and shaking it up to combine the bacteria with the growth solution that will kick the microorganisms into action.

“I don’t think it’s going to feel real until it comes back,” Amanda said.

Their project, part of a class assignment in 2015, competed against hundreds of others as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, a project by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education.

The students had to deal with a long list of do’s and don’ts to make sure their project was small enough and safe for spaceflight. At first, the duo considered sending up an avocado to study the rotting process in space, but past student projects had been similar. They also had to scrap a plan to test salmonella samples after learning officials aren’t exactly receptive to delivering dangerous pathogens to the space station.

They landed on a study of shewanella oneidensis, bacteria that can remove metal from water. Their proposal suggested the microbes could act as a water filtration system for colonists on Mars, although Skylar said she realized the idea also could have value closer to home.

“Even in D.C., somewhere so close to us, they have so many lead problems in their water,” she said, adding that the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan, also filled the news during the experiment’s design. “All the puzzle pieces came together—that this could help us in the future and this could help us now.”

The experiment was originally scheduled to head to space in 2016, but a rocket explosion caused months of delay. In fact, the wait was so long that the students are concerned the bacteria passed their expiration date and might not work at all.

Their science teacher, Dan TerBush, said he was disappointed by the setback, but he was excited to see the project finally blast off on a SpaceX resupply mission.

“I never thought I would have an experiment go up to space that I was involved in, in any way,” TerBush said.

Bullis School science teacher Dan TerBush shows Amanda Kay (left) and Skylar Jordan a recording of the rocket launch that sent their experiment to space. Photo by Bethany Rodgers.

The experiment will probably stay on the station for a few more weeks before it returns on a ferry mission and the students can check their prediction that bacteria would filter iron at roughly the same rates on Earth and in space.

Amanda and Skylar said they’re both interested in science and are considering medicine as a career.

“Math is very structured. History doesn’t change. But I feel like science is the one thing that is open to change,” Skylar said.

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