Their high school science project is headed to the space station

Three seniors at Pasco County’s Krinn Technical High won a competition to have astronauts conduct their experiment.
From left, Krinn Technical High seniors Emily Null, Amanda Marrero and Shelly Nonnenberg rehydrate bacteria with a nutrient broth as they perfect their research project that will head into space in August.
From left, Krinn Technical High seniors Emily Null, Amanda Marrero and Shelly Nonnenberg rehydrate bacteria with a nutrient broth as they perfect their research project that will head into space in August. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]
Published Feb. 1, 2020

NEW PORT RICHEY — Before their senior year, Amanda Marrero, Emily Null and Shelly Nonnenberg had only a passing knowledge of antibiotics, bacteria and the science surrounding them.

They barely knew each other, having attended different schools until enrolling at Krinn Technical High as juniors.

Now they are friends, expert in their biomedical research field, and winners of a contest that will send a project they developed into space, where astronauts will help them figure out if their hypothesis works.

As an added incentive, they are finding success in a pursuit that traditionally has attracted relatively few women. Educators have been working in recent years to steer more female students toward careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

“It’s good for them to see at this age that women can do what men can do in this field,” said Sarah Kumar, their teacher and project mentor.

But it’s all been about the hard work that Marrero, Null and Nonnenberg put in.

“She didn’t hold our hand,” Nonnenberg said of their teacher. “She always made it clear, she’s here to help us when we need it. But it’s our project. Even here in high school, we’re scientists.”

They got there through their school’s new approach to encouraging project-based learning.

Rather than having students participate in the dreaded annual science fair, with a chance to compete at the state level, Krinn Technical decided to give them a different challenge: Aim for the stars.

For about seven years, the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education has held a contest in which students across North and South America can vie to place a research project on the International Space Station. More than 2,800 proposals were submitted for consideration this year.

Several Hillsborough County schools have participated over the years. Krinn Technical, which opened in 2018, joined the initiative this year, and nearly half of its students chose to compete.

Related: Forget states. These Pasco science students are competing for space.

Their charge was to find a new area of science to explore, create a project that could fit in a test tube the size of your hand, and devise a process that astronauts could follow to complement the added research they would conduct on the Earth.

The students focused on ideas that examined whether processes that work on the ground, such as effective herbicides on soybeans, would have similar results in an environment without gravity, in case humans ever are confronted with that situation.

All were competitive, Kumar said. But the eventual Pasco County winner stood out, she said.

The three seniors, all in the school’s biomedical program, turned to questions about medicine. They homed in on the antibiotics that kill bacteria related to staph and other infections, to see if they would continue to work in space. It was a topic they found little other research about.

“We wanted to make sure that our experiment was relevant and could save lives,” Marrero said, noting the bacteria they are studying can thrive without oxygen, which might make space travelers susceptible. “We found a diamond in the rough.”

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Their project name is How will Microgravity Affect the Efficiency of Amoxicillin on S. Epidermis. In short, it involves giving the bacteria a nutrient broth which might help it grow, and then an antibiotic known to kill it. After two days of exposure, they would test the samples to see what happened.

At first, Null admitted, the group was uncertain — and not just about the project idea, which they hid from others while they worked to improve it. They also knew the potential pitfalls of working with a team on a school project.

Could they trust one another to do the work? Would one person be burdened with all the effort while the others watched?

Things worked out almost perfectly for the threesome.

“We’re all open-minded and we respect each other’s opinions,” Null said.

“It’s so nice having other people you can rely on,” Nonnenberg added.

Their confidence grew. But the girls still were surprised when Kumar called them out of class one afternoon to tell them they had won — something they had to keep secret, even from their parents, until a formal announcement could arrive.

Now they’re furiously working to get everything ready for a Feb. 21 flight safety review by NASA scientists, in preparation for the August launch.

The girls said they’re hopeful that they get the outcome they predicted. But even if they don’t, Marrero said they’ll still be successful.

After all, they learned more about researching, time management and prioritizing, not to mention self-reliance and teamwork.

“That in itself will be me anywhere I go,” she said.

Plus, failure would just lead to more exploration about what went wrong, why, and what might work instead.

“This just pushes me and gives me motivation to do greater things,” Null said. “This isn’t the end.”