Singapore, June 2, 2017. 4:40 a.m. Walking along dimly lit streets, six Singapore American School students made their way to the offices of Bhattacharya Space Enterprises for one of the most exciting days of their lives.

Along with their mentors Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya, CEO and founder of Bhattacharya Space Enterprises, and Priyadarshini Majumdar, a National University of Singapore graduate, around 20 people waited for the moment of truth—for the screen to light up— indicating that the Dragon spacecraft was launched into orbit, carrying the first ever experiment sent to space by high schoolers in Singapore. 

The air was thick with nerves and excitement as the minutes ticked by. The wait was excruciating. Forty minutes later a message appeared on the livestream screen: “THE LAUNCH HAS BEEN CANCELLED.”

The beginning

For over a year, student leader Sunita Srivatsan and her team of five—Jaclyn Chan, Keshav Jagannath, Annie Kim, Madeline Smith, and Devansh Tandon, guided by SAS Robotics coaches Meredith White and Bart Millar—had been meticulously planning, collaborating, and researching to set up an experiment to study the effects of microgravity on mutations in bacteria.

On June 4, 2017 at 5:00 a.m. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 successfully lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, United States, and sent the Dragon spacecraft into orbit. The experiment ran for about a month, and was brought back before the start of the new school year.

Senior Keshav Jagannath, head of integration, creator of biocapsule, Keshewnut: “The real success of this project is not that we have data from an experiment that was in space for 30 days. Rather, it is the learning through the process. Every setback, every failure, and every hiccup taught us so much, and the team worked tirelessly to solve problems. We are now better learners. Regardless of the careers we pursue, I know the things we learned here will aid us in projects we undertake in the foreseeable future.”

The results

“The dynamic of this team is incredible. Each one of our members handled intra-team conflict efficiently, resulting in a smooth run. The ability to learn from mistakes, whether our own or of others, and to build upon those learnings was something we all took away from this project,” said senior Devansh Tandon, head of biology and experimental design, team clown, and chief scientist.

As the last screw locking the microcapsule fell to the table, the team carefully wiggled the lid off, to unveil the experiment that had cost them precious time the past year.

A million things crossed their minds. A million things that could have gone wrong. The broth bag could have leaked; the pumps could have malfunctioned; the bacteria could have died. At this point in time, it was anybody’s guess. When the team took a close look at the biocapsule, they knew the experiment had worked. It was apparent that the bacteria that was given broth with melanin had grown a lot more than the non-melanin control group.

A few days later, Sunita Srivatsan (Class of 2017) graduated from SAS, and began looking ahead to her next journey at Princeton University. She said, “SpaceLab was an extremely enriching experience for me, primarily because of the opportunity it provided to pursue a real-world application of science in such a cool, unique context—sending something to space!”

With support and guidance from thousands of miles away, the team of five pressed on to collect quantitative data. Studying a representative sample from each data set—in space with melanin, in space without melanin, on earth with melanin, on earth without melanin—offered surprising results. Whereas the earth experiment’s melanin versus non-melanin bacterial cultures grew to a similar size, the space experiment’s control bacteria had grown to a larger area than the melanin-treated bacteria.

The results indicated that team SpaceLab’s hypothesis was incorrect. It could have been any number of factors: from the pool of data being too small to conclusively determine anything, to it being merely an anomaly.

Junior Madeline Smith, mechanical-biological integrator, who took a course in DNA, recalls: “We kept going no matter how late we stayed at school, or how many hours we put into the project on weekends. Through collaboration, we learned how to accomplish tasks efficiently and to achieve the impossible.”

Possibly in the future, one of them will continue to research the effects of melanin in space and come to a different conclusion. “Now that we’ve dipped our toes into space research, we’re inspired to continue to waddle through the vast universe, the unknown,” said Kim.

What’s next for SpaceLab at SAS?

The SpaceLab is soaring higher than ever this year. Now an official club at SAS, the SpaceLab has a new team working on an electrochemistry experiment testing the crystallization of both copper and bronze in microgravity conditions. Under the guidance of high school faculty Fred Crawford and Ian Page, the experiment hopes to open up new dimensions for electrical wiring in the future.

The club received 66 applications at the beginning of the year. Rigorous selection criteria, coupled with student interviews and faculty feedback led to team of 11 students chosen to work on the new experiment. The selection criteria included technical skills, personality, and the ability to work on a team. Building a team of upperclassmen and underclassmen will ensure that as students gain experience, they will be able to mentor newcomers in the future, and sustain the program.

Both Crawford and Page participated in a week-long training session in San Jose, California, meeting with Howell to scope the project needs and demands. According to Crawford: “It is an amazing opportunity for kids to be able to explore something like this, conducting passionate inquiry and research to accomplish a goal they may not necessarily be able to achieve in a normal classroom setting.

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