The space kids

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Our Stories

The space kids

Toronto, May 17, 2016

By Geoff Koehler

Dr. Jane Batt reviews the results of a Western Blot test with high school student Annie Gravely
Dr. Jane Batt reviews the results of a Western Blot test with high school student Annie Gravely. The test looks for a protein that Gravely, 14, believes may be linked to the muscle-wasting disease ALS. (Photo by Katie Cooper)

It’s a Thursday afternoon and Annie Gravely is hard at work in Dr. Jane Batt’s research lab. Gravely is part of a team of researchers sending worms into space. Unlike most students in Dr. Batt’s lab, Gravely doesn’t hold a PhD or a master’s degree. In fact, she doesn’t even have her high school diploma—because she’s only in Grade 9.

The 14-year-old is one of 10 students from the University of Toronto Schools working on the project, part of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education’s Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. Students design and propose real experiments to fly in low Earth orbit, first aboard a space shuttle, and then on the International Space Station.

“Last year when we started the project, we had to come up with an experiment that would make a difference after being sent to space,” said Gravely. “I was thinking about some of the issues astronauts have in space, like muscle atrophy, and thought this may link to the way muscle can waste away on earth. My grandpa had ALS and I wanted to do something that would help others like him.”

The Space Kids
  • Madeline Elder - Grade 12
  • Amy Freeman - currently in university
  • Annie Gravely - Grade 9
  • Wilson Ho - Grade 12
  • Michael Liu - currently in university
  • Bridget Peters - Grade 9
  • Miguel Rico-Luengo - Grade 12
  • Alice Vlasov - Grade 9
  • Catherine Vlasov - currently in University
  • Kay Wu - Grade 12

Their experiment aims to unearth a better understanding of the causes of muscle atrophy — a common contributor in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, sometimes called Lou Gehrig's disease. The students are trying to assess which protein may play a role in the muscle loss that takes place in microgravity. Approximately 30,000 worms, each about 1 millimetre long, will be placed in an approximately 18-centimetre silicone tube housing the experiment.

Gravely’s mother, Dr. Marie Faughnan, is a respirologist at St. Michael’s Hospital, an associate scientist in the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science and head of the hospital’s Hereditary Hemorrhagic Telangiectasia Centre, but Dr. Batt said Gravely co-ordinated the outreach herself.

“Annie sent emails constantly,” said Dr. Batt, who is the medical director of St. Michael’s Tuberculosis Program and a researcher with the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science. “Our lab hosted the students and trained them on the techniques they’ll need to analyze the proteins in the worms that return from orbit, but the ‘space kids,’ as we call them, planned out this entire experiment. These are bright, driven kids.”

The worms are scheduled to blast off on June 24.

Did you know?
The tube where the worms will be housed during the experiment is divided with plastic clamps to keep the worms and materials separate until the astronauts activate the experiment in orbit. Astronauts will close and open the clamps or shake the contents of the tube at pre-determined times during flight. The clamps will be reapplied before leaving microgravity to ensure the experiment runs in a weightless environment only.

Gravely said the UTS students will be in Florida for the launch but when the tube returns to earth 10 weeks later, Gravely and her fellow students will be back in the Keenan Research Centre conducting the experiments they’d trained for and to see what mysteries the universe reveals.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.

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