Country School 7th Grader Wins National Biotechnology Award

Country School 7th Grader Ksenia Podoltseva of Madison is one of five middle school students across the nation to win a Genes in Space Junior Scientist Award. “The Country School has a robust STEAM and biotechnology program, and Genes in Space provided me with the perfect opportunity to apply what I have learned in science class to the real world,” said Ksenia. 

Proposals for the Genes in Space competition focus on designing molecular-based experiments to be conducted on the International Space Station that address human health needs and countermeasures during long-duration space missions. This was a very competitive year for Genes in Space: more than 1000 students submitted a total of 602 proposals, about 250 of which came from middle school teams. As part of the award, The Country School received a P51 Fluorescence Biotechnology Kit that includes some of the same DNA technology used aboard the International Space Station.
Ksenia chose to study SANS, Spaceflight-associated Neuro-ocular Syndrome, and how she could improve astronauts’ vision because in space, low gravity allows more than half a gallon of fluids to gather in the head, putting great pressure on the eyeballs. Similar to SANS, glaucoma elevates eye pressure, so she proposed implementing Drug-Eluting Contact Lenses soaked in Latanoprost drops, a common prescription for glaucoma, and evaluating common genetic markers related to intraocular pressure expressed in ocular tissues during glaucoma, GAS7, and TMO1.
It is common practice for Country School science teachers Dr. Amy Cornell and Stephanie Johnson to elevate their molecular biology lessons beyond the classroom. For this unit, they took their students to biotech companies 4Catalyzer in Guilford, home of the Detect Test, Hyperfine, Butterfly, and to Quantum Si to present their Genes in Space proposals to a group of scientists. This practice also solidified the students’ public speaking and leadership skills, two of The Country School’s Signature Programs.

Dr. Schultz, Country School parent and engineer at Quantum-Si, spoke to Cornell’s and Johnson’s students about how water behaves in microgravity as they considered ways to handle liquids for their proposals on the ISS. His presentation was especially influential to Ksenia, as it helped her develop her idea of using a contact lens as a drug delivery system in space.  
Ksenia’s experience with Genes in Space taught her quite a bit beyond biotech. Said Ksenia, “I chose a topic I am passionate about, I used my resources, I wasn’t afraid to ask questions, and I learned from others. Most of all, there is still much to improve in space, and it is my generation’s responsibility to take action.”
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Founded in 1955, The Country School is a coeducational, independent school serving students in PreSchool-Grade 8. The Country School is committed to active, hands-on learning and a vigorous curriculum that engages the whole child.