Age: 17Saint James, NY
Project Title: A Toxic Lunar Environment: Adverse Effects of a Lunar Soil Simulant (JSC-1A) on Alveolar Cellular Health and Genomic Integrity
Airborne lunar dust has been previously reported to cause respiratory harm to Apollo astronauts, presenting a toxic lunar environment for future space explorations. With the impending 2024 NASA mission back to the Moon, there is an urgency to fully evaluate the toxicological hazards of lunar dust to mitigate the risks involved. Foreign particles, hitching a ride on space suits and contaminating habitual space, can have long-term biopersistence within the alveolar region and induce pathologies such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumoconiosis, and adenocarcinoma. This study sought to delve into the molecular cytotoxic and genotoxic impacts of JSC-1A, a proxy for lunar soil. Cellular health analysis revealed the induction of apoptotic mechanisms and oxidative stress which prompt pulmonary scarring and fibrosis. Genome health analysis revealed both nuclear and mitochondrial instability creating concern for the development of degenerative disorders and lung cancer. This study shows that necessary precautions must be taken to protect our astronauts in future missions. Pulmonary pathologies will soon prevalent in our space explorers if they are consistently breathing in these hazardous toxic particles. This study sets the urgency for additional experimentation, as knowledge regarding the biological consequences of lunar regolith particles are still in its infancy, prior to sending our astronauts back to Moon.
My name is Kevin Chen, and I am from Saint James, New York in Long Island. I am deeply interested in investigating the numerous intricate molecular mechanisms of the human body which, despite having been studied for who knows how long, still has many mysteries that have yet to be solved. Of course, that means studying the capabilities of the human body in diverse environments, notably outer space, where unexpected external stimuli can pose hazards to our body. I am tremendously honored and grateful to be named a Davidson fellow as it serves as a huge motivator for my future scientific aspirations. I am excited to join this brilliant and inspiring community and meet many talented individuals.
The inspiration behind my project comes from my experience at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference (ISSR&D) where I was given the amazing opportunity to hear presentations about biological experiments being conducted on the ISS as well as meet and discuss with an astronaut about her experience living in space. I was inspired by these studies and stories and decided to pursue a research project that would help expand the knowledge of the space science community. My project’s focus was the upcoming NASA Artemis mission back to the Moon which seeks to project a permanent base on the lunar surface—serving as a testing site for future deep space explorations to Mars. According to previous Apollo Mission reports, one recurring issue during lunar explorations had been the presence of airborne lunar regolith (“lunar soil”) that permeated the lunar environment and perpetually contaminated spacesuits and habitual space due to its electrostatic nature. Inhalation of these lunar particles resulted in a series of physiological symptoms denoted as “lunar hay fever” that persisted for the duration of the mission. While these symptoms subsided upon returning to Earth, the consequences of long-term exposure were of concern as terrestrial studies have indicated the development of COPD and cancerous phenotypes through the bio persistence of foreign particles within the alveolar regions. I evaluated the cytotoxic and genotoxic properties of lunar regolith through the usage of a NASA-constructed lunar soil simulant that mimicked the morphological and chemical composition of soil found on the Moon. Through extensive molecular experimentation, I was able to devise a pathway revealing how contact with lunar regolith at the cellular level could result in oxidative stress via the formation of reactive oxygen species, nuclear and mitochondrial DNA aberrations, and double-stranded DNA breaks. My data and methodologies had set the basis for future toxicological studies that are necessary to fully uncover the biological hazards of lunar regolith particles.
Every research project has challenges and mine was no exception. There were countless times where experiments would fail, cell cultures would be contaminated, and assays needed to be fine-tuned, but these small setbacks were all part of the enriching experience. Learning to diagnose a problem and figuring how to fix it was one of the most important skills I had acquired during my research journey. I am extremely grateful to my mentor, Dr. Bruce Demple, who first took me into his laboratory when I was an inexperienced high school sophomore and guided me through the research process. I greatly appreciate the invaluable support he has provided in helping me understand complex pathways and designing assays. Additionally, I am grateful for Rachel Caston and Hsing-Ming Chang for stimulating feedbacks on each and every one of my experiments. I am also very thankful to my science research teacher, Ms. Maria Zeitlin, who gave me the confidence to set outside my comfort zone within the classroom and pursue my scientific passion at a research institution.
Connecting geology with cellular biology, my research contributes to our knowledge of the lunar environment and the possible hazards it may pose to the human body. This is important for future space explorations as beyond the 2024 NASA Artemis mission back to the Moon, initiatives seeking to extend even further, such as the Mars exploration, are being developed rapidly. The Martian environment presents a greater and drastically different challenge to humans that contains numerous hazards of its own, including respirable Martian dust. Astronauts will be required to adapt to and utilize on-site resources to sustain a human presence on these celestial bodies. With extravehicular surface explorations, testing for agricultural production, and soil-based technological developments, our space explorers will be consistently exposed to these respirable and hazardous materials, thus long-term exposure is unavoidable. My work provides the background needed to devise potential treatments and protective mechanisms against lunar particles.
Furthermore, the implications of my project also hold an impact here on Earth. My research has further refined our understanding of cellular damage resulting from the inhalation of foreign particles and will be critical in protecting industrial /environmental workers from chronic pulmonary diseases. I believe that my work has already made an impact in warning us of the precautions that must be taken during space travels and well as in workplaces, however, I also believe that my ideas and results can be greatly expanded upon with the help of many diverse professions ranging from geologists to toxicologists to engineers to astronauts.
My first research experience began in the summer of freshmen year when I attended the Stony Brook Biotechnology Summer Scholars program where I was exposed to basic molecular biology techniques such as PCR and gel electrophoresis. This experience had drawn me into the world of scientific research and taught me many invaluable skills. From there I became part of my school’s Think Discovery Science Research program lead by my teacher, Ms. Zeitlin, in which I was given the opportunity to truly find scientific topics that I was deeply passionate about and pursue them at the university level. The intellectually diverse and tight-knit classroom my teacher had cultivated had taught me collaboration and unity which are incredibly important in research. In the fall, I will be attending Yale University where I will be majoring in Molecular Biochemistry and Biophysics and possibly some humanities major which I have yet to decide. I am very excited to explore the wide variety of opportunities and resources the institution has to offer.
Overall, I am extremely glad I had chosen to pursue scientific research as I am thankful for all the experiences it has given me. Beyond the work I had done for the Davidson Fellows project, I have also conducted research works investigating DNA repair mechanisms and its relationship to neurodegenerative disorders. I have been named a Genes in Space National finalist for a space molecular proposal I had designed for outer space experimentation which I presented at the ISSR&D conference. Outside of research, I am the president of my school’s Think Discovery Club where we focus on increasing scientific awareness within our community and vice president of my school’s Math Honor Society. I am also part of my school chamber orchestra and pit orchestra. During my free time, I am usually helping out at my family’s take-out restaurant, binge-watching cooking shows on Netflix, or taking long-strolls and pondering.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In a MD/PhD program finishing my thesis and starting my physician training
If you could have dinner with the five most interesting people in the world, living or dead, who would they be?
NASA Twin astronauts (Scott Kelly and Mark Kelly), Neil Armstrong, Tchaikovsky, and Gordon Ramsay
In the News
SAINT JAMES TEEN AWARDED $25,000 FOR RESEARCH ONADVERSE HEALTH EFFECTS OF THE INHALATION OF LUNAR DUST AND OTHER FOREIGN PARTICLES
Kevin Chen to be Named a 2020 Davidson Fellow Scholarship Winner
Saint James, N.Y. – The Davidson Fellows Scholarship Program has announced the 2020 scholarship winners. Among the honorees is 17-year-old Kevin Chen of Saint James. Chen won a $25,000 scholarship for his project, A Toxic Lunar Environment: Adverse Effects of a Lunar Soil Simulant (JSC-1A) on Alveolar Cellular Health and Genomic Integrity. He is one of only 20 students across the country to be recognized as a scholarship winner.
“I am tremendously honored and grateful to be named a Davidson Fellow as it serves as a huge motivator for my future scientific aspirations,” said Chen. “I am excited to join this brilliant and inspiring community and meet many talented individuals.”
Inspired by biological experiments taking place on the International Space Station, Chen wanted to contribute to expanding the knowledge of the space science community. His project further evaluates the toxicological hazards of lunar dust inhaled by astronauts so that the risks faced by future lunar exploration may be mitigated. Chen, using extensive molecular experimentation, was able to devise a pathway revealing how contact with lunar regolith (dust) at the cellular level could result in oxidative stress via the formation of reactive oxygen species, nuclear and mitochondrial DNA aberrations, and double-stranded DNA breaks. Chen’s research further refined our understanding of cellular damage resulting from the inhalation of foreign particles which can also be applied on Earth, and will be critical in protecting industrial and environmental workers from chronic pulmonary diseases.
Chen will be attending Yale University in the fall where he plans to study molecular biochemistry and biophysics.
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