Despite outcome, experiment aboard Endeavour positive for Shelton students
Updated 11:28 pm, Friday, June 24, 2011
SHELTON -- "Inconclusive" is the way five Shelton High School graduates characterized the results of their science experiment that orbited Earth last month as part of the payload of the space shuttle Endeavour on its final mission.
Four of the five team members, who graduated on Monday, presented their findings to the Board of Education Wednesday using a PowerPoint presentation to show photographs of the bacteria they sent into space and the same bacteria after it returned to Earth and was then treated with three different antibiotics.
"The results were not what we anticipated," said Omar Sobh, 17. "We rejected our initial hypothesis."
Another team member, Jason Shnipes, 18, explained, "It's not a success but it's not a failure in the respect that we might not have achieved the results that we wanted to achieve, but with our experiment we have definitely opened doors to other people who could pick up our work and make something really useful out of it."
In fact, representatives from PerkinElmer, which supported the students through the course of their experiment, are encouraging them to write their results for publication as a white paper, which is an analysis or a summary in review of a project and its findings, conclusions or observations.
"We've offered to provide them with a technical review of their writing so it's done in a professional, scientific manner so that they have a scientific publication that they could add to their portfolio," said Alessandra Rasmussen, vice president of corporate marketing for PerkinElmer.
The experiment, Development of Prokaryotic Cell Walls in Microgravity, grew a particular strain of bacteria during the 16-day shuttle mission. The Shelton alums, who were seniors last fall when they designed the experiment, hypothesized that the microgravity environment of space might weaken the cell walls of the bacteria. They hoped the anticipated compromised cell walls would be less resistant to antibiotics, leading to treatments for drug-resistant bacterial infections.
"The biggest surprise was that the bacteria in space appeared healthier than the bacteria on Earth," said Mary Clark, science and curriculum leader for the high school who served as the team's teacher facilitator.
James Szabo, 18, said the team sent its results and photographs to scientists at Yale University and to Dr. Terry Couch in Florida for his review. It was Couch who provided the students with the bacteria for their experiment. Szabo said Couch told them if he had to eat one of the two bacteria it would be the one grown on the shuttle flight rather than the Earth-grown sample "because it looked healthier," although he couldn't understand why.
Clark said their experiment was a one-time event that could not be repeated, making it difficult to arrive at any conclusions. "For any scientist nothing is going to be conclusive on the first try," she said.
"That's science and that's research," said Tina Henckel, assistant director of STEM and Data Management for the Shelton school system and the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program community program director for Shelton.
So many delays had plagued the last voyage of the Endeavour, including one on April 29 when the team was in Florida hoping to witness the launch, that Shnipes told board members, "We learned how to deal with a significant amount of disappointment."
He added that they may be somewhat disappointed at the results but that the experience was rewarding.
"We felt like we were actual scientists," Shnipes said. "It was the opportunity of a lifetime. I'm hoping I can at least match it, match the prestige of it, at some point later in life," he said.
Superintendent of Schools Freeman Burr said there are greater things in their future, and he told the team that it put Shelton on the map and that the school system has reaped the benefits of its involvement in the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education's first Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.
Henckel said the relationship that has developed with PerkinElmer and that company's willingness to mentor other students was one of the positive results.
"As a global scientific leader and active corporate citizen in the human and environmental health industries, PerkinElmer has very strong roots in science and technology. As such, we recognize the importance of fostering interest and enthusiasm for science in young adults," said Dusty Tenney, president of Analytical Sciences and Laboratory Services for PerkinElmer.
"We hope, in addition to the relationship that we have with Shelton High School, to continue to strengthen school-business partnerships," Rasmussen said.
Board of Education member Arlene Liscinsky told the team members that the community as a whole is proud of them and she wished them "good luck in your next `endeavor.' "
Four of the five plan careers in the sciences. Kayla Russo, 18, and Shnipes aspire to become engineers, Sobh plans to go to medical school, and Szabo is undecided but will work in the science field. Only Leann Misencik, 17, has chosen an entirely different path. She wants to be an elementary school teacher.