Westport student wins national science contest
WESTPORT — Olivia Feeney doesn’t have an extensive laboratory at her disposal.
Pierrepont School, where the 13-year-old eighth-grader studies, has only 137 students in kindergarten through 12th grade at its Sylvan Road facility. They don’t have a lot of space for lab, but they do have a teacher-to-student ratio of about 3 to 1, which allows for personalized learning catered to students’ interests.
“This child doesn’t have 1,000 Bunsen burners and makers’ spaces and lots of technology. We’re not deprived here because we invest in people, not equipment,” said Head of School Sarah Marchesi, of Feeney.
The absence of equipment makes Feeney’s recent honor all the more impressive. Earlier this month, the Westport resident was named a Junior Scientist winner of the national STEM competition Genes in Space, begun in 2015 by Boeing and miniPCR, who make miniature DNA amplification machines. The competition asks students to design a DNA experiment that relates to space travel and is open to students in grades seven through 12. With her project concerning cardiac health and microgravity (the environment of space), Feeney was one of only five middle school winners, out of 129 submissions.
“Our philosophy is that we don’t come in with new teachers and say here’s a book you have to teach. We really give teachers a lot of leeway in what they teach and how they go about it,” said Peniel Dimberu, head of the science department at Pierrepont.
While attending a teachers’ workshop at the Taft School last year, Dimberu learned about Genes and Space and the capabilities of DNA amplifiers like the miniPCR machine. He decided to start a weekly after school club for students interested in the competition, which Feeney joined.
“Science has always been my favorite subject. Biology is really my passion,” Feeney said.
She and a small group of other Pierrepont students began researching potential topics with the guidance of Dimberu.
“I was looking for projects that hadn’t been researched, hadn’t been touched on and that we didn’t have many answers for. I found cardiac health and maintenance I really thought was interesting and important,” Feeney said.
“The research showed me that your heart really is affected in microgravity. It shrinks, it starts to round off by 9.4 percent,” Feeney said. “They actually did a test using ultrasounds on astronauts before and after they went into space and you can see a physical difference.”
According to Dimberu, Feeney used a recent NASA study of astronaut Scott Kelly and his identical twin brother Mark. The study found, after a year in space, Scott’s genes were fundamentally the same, but their expression, or how the body reacts to an environment, had changed.
Feeney said her research suggested hearts somewhat regain their regular form, but certain side effects like irregular heartbeats and sudden blood pressure drops persist. Feeney suggested if the genes affected by space travel could be isolated, they could be manipulated in a way to hopefully negate the effects of microgravity on astronauts.
It’s a problem with serious implications, which is a reason Dimberu thinks Feeney’s project may have stood out.
“It’s a very important topic, especially now that they’ve done those scans and seen the spherical morphology that the heart takes,” Dimberu said. “The cardiac health of these astronauts is a serious concern.”
The project and subsequent report that Feeney submitted was highly theoretical.
“For this project, obviously we can’t do much experimenting unless it’s in space. So it was doing a lot of research and seeing if you think it would work in space,” Feeney said.
However, with Feeney’s win, the school was awarded its own miniPCR DNA amplifying machine.
“Now we’ll be able to do more hands-on experimentation with isolating and extracting DNA from cells and doing more tests on them,” Dimberu said. “But still, the kids are doing a lot of great work without having a world class lab at their fingertips, which says a lot about them.”
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