Gifford Middle School Students Explore "Genes in Space!"

Oct 17, 2018

So… over at Gifford Middle School in Indian River County? There is a powerhouse of young scientists pioneering into the final frontier of…. Space!

“Being a scientist is like being a detective. It’s always trying to figure out something. It doesn’t matter what the field of science is, you’re investigating. You’re trying to find answers for questions.”

That’s Melissa Sleeper, the science instructor at Gifford Middle leading the way.

MS: “I am a Solar System Ambassador for NASA JPL….”

That’s ‘Jet Propulsion Laboratory’…

MS: and I am a MAVEN educator ambassador also for NASA

Maven stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission. She’s Gifford Middle teacher of the year, and, among other things, she’s working with a team to develop lessons for a state-of-the-art telescope being installed in Chile.

MS: "I just really have this goal that one of my students is going to have an experiment in space someday!"

That bring us to: Genes in Space! That’s G-E-N-E-S- …. as in DNA – not blue jeans! It’s a contest for 7th through 12th graders to design DNA experiments that address challenges in space exploration. The winning experiments are launched on the International Space Station!  We met with three of Sleeper’s students – all girls – who participate in Genes in Space.  They are in the 8th grade.

“Hi - I am Ava Justice”

“My name’s Mac Amos”

“My name’s Seneca Turechek”

Have you girls all known each other a long time? YES. We all went to elementary school together. Since 2nd grade I think.

Last year for their experiment, Genes in Space loaned them a mini PCR - DNA analysis machine.

Tania & Seneca: “And what is a PCR?... The polymerous chain reaction.”

Mac: “So we basically we conducted this experiment to try and find a certain strain of salmonella poisoning in the hypothetical food supply on the spacecraft, so we used the mini PCR to try and isolate that salmonella strain.”

But… they only had it for two weeks.

All girls: “We kind of had a struggle with that in the beginning because... Yes. We were very confused about the amount. It didn’t look like there was anything in the dropper. So, We were like - oh it’s not even coming out! But it was. A lot of the projects got messed up because of that. Ha-ha. So, we just have to practice I guess.

Well…. now they can practice all they want.

The Society for Science & the Public just awarded grants to 24 middle school science teachers across the country, and Sleeper is one of them!

Sure enough, she plans to use her $5,000 award to buy mini PCRs!

MS: “To prepare all kids to be 21st century workers it’s good to have a wide range of experiences using different types of equipment that’s really used in the real world… The long-term goal is for the kids to have a broad idea of how this equipment is used so that they can come up with their own investigations to go aboard the international space station.”

It should arrive in about a month.  Sleeper already has their first experiment planned.

MS: "We’re going to do a simulation where someone was bit by a shark. We’re going to take the DNA near the bite wound to try to determine what type of species the shark bit them.”

So, in July, Genes in Space named a team of Minnesota high school students this year’s winners!

That means Astronauts aboard the International Space Station will soon perform their experiment, which is to study how cells repair their DNA in space.

Oh, and be sure to listen to a very special WEB EXTRA on why the Ava, Mac and Seneca love science. It is here at this same link at

Ava Justice, Mac Amos, Melissa Sleeper and Seneca Turechek
Credit Tania Ortega-Cowan