Bullard High School Goes to Space

I wrote this article for the Jacksonville Progress. It was published July 22. The article was over some high school students who were participating in the SSEP program, and were putting the finishing touches on their experiment.

On Wednesday, July 19, at a UT Tyler lab, young scientists from Bullard High School prepared an experiment for loading onto a shuttle to the International Space Station (ISS).

Emma Rhyne and Raelee Walker were both present for the final preparations of the experiment, while fellow group members Valerie Vierkant and Emmalee Ellis had previous engagements that day. The four of them have been working together for the past two years as contestants in the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program (SSEP). The SSEP is a program designed to provide real-world experience and to develop a love of science for future generations.

The experiment they have prepared is titled “Microgravity’s Effects on Solanum Tuberosum Resistance to Phytophthora Infestans.” To more simply describe it, they want to determine what effect, if any, microgravity has on potatoes’ susceptibility to potato blight.

“Plant cell walls grow thinner in microgravity, so we want to see what effect it has,” Rhyne. said. “Hopefully they [the potatoes] will be blight resistant, but they probably won’t be.”

“We really just want to see if the blight infects at the same rate or if it infects quicker,” added Walker.

Phytophthora Infestans is a disease that effects potatoes, hence the common name “potato blight.” It was a major culprit of the Irish Famine of the 1840s. Walker said that finding out how resistant potatoes could be to the blight in microgravity is very important for future space missions, to determine whether or not astronauts could grow their own food. To test this, Rhyne and Walker loaded some thin slices of potato into a tube, followed by a small sample of potato blight. These were separated in the tube by a divider, which will be removed onboard the ISS.

The students have been working with Dr. Ali Azghani of UT Tyler. He was quick to point out that the idea for the experiment belonged to the students, and they did the majority of the work. He worked solely in a mentorship position for them, and helped fill holes in their research and planning of the project. He also added that the hardest part of the entire project was getting his lab FDA certified to safely handle pathogens (i.e. the potato blight).

The experiment will be launched aboard the SpaceX CRS-12 Mission 11, “America,” on August 10 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. This, along with only 20 other SSEP experiments from across the country, will be tested aboard the ISS. The results from this experiment could go a long way in the future of space exploration as well as agriculture.

“SSEP was definitely an interesting project, and I’m honored to have taken part in it,” Vierkant said.



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