A group of Calera High School students are getting the opportunity to do real, hands-on Science through a project that encourages high school students to grow ‘seed’ protein crystals which will eventually be used for space research. The Calera students are participating in the program during after school hours, working with Science teachers Mark Drackett and Mike Smith.
Calera High School is one of 10 local schools participating in the competition to see whose scientific methods will result in the best type of crystal. The winning team will receive $10,000 in college scholarship money, which will be divided equally among the team members.
The students are combining various types of solutions in capillary tubes and then manipulating the variables to see which process produces the best crystallization. The seed crystals will then be launched into space, where the microgravity environment is ideal for the crystals to grow into the size and shape needed to study their make-up.
“The structure of many proteins has yet to be determined and the best method for determining structure requires a crystal with exceptional clarity, size and shape,” explained teacher Mark Drackett. “Students are testing various combinations of conditions to produce high quality ‘seed’ crystals which will then be launched into space.”
Researches study the makeup of the crystals for a variety of things, including the development of new pharmaceutical drugs. One specific protein that is being used is for Cystic Fibrosis research.
“I think this project is very interesting,” said Calera High student Preston Waid. “It is fun to do what actual scientists are doing.”
“It is really cool that we have the opportunity to do something like this while we are still in high school,” agreed student Skyler Hendrix.
According to Principal Richard Bishop, he first became aware of the project through his involvement with the Youth Leadership Development Program (YLDP) of the Greater Alabama Council of the Boy Scouts of America. The YLDP program, founded in 2008 by Dr. Kevin Walsh, now has 13 colleges and universities as partners and more than 15 corporate and community sponsors. The organization has helped provide $1 million in scholarship money to deserving students based on their character.
Dr. Walsh partnered with Dr. Larry DeLucas, a former astronaut and current director of the Center of Biophysical Sciences and Engineering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, to write a NASA grant to fund a crystallization project for high school students. Dr. DeLucas wrote the $125,000 grant and oversees the project.
According to Libby Holmes, who serves program director of YLDP through Jefferson State University, the seed crystals will eventually be launched as part of the next NASA SpaceX Mission. The date for that mission has not been set, but Holmes and Walsh are trying to raise enough money in order for at least one teacher and two students from each participating school to travel to Florida to witness the launch. The students will continue to work on their projects after the crystals return from the space mission.
“Part of the competition involves seeing how the crystals grow in space and who has the best results,” explained Holmes. “Once the students have their crystals back, they will complete a poster project describing the methods they used to get their results”
Students will present their findings at a Science Fair to be held at the UAB Biophysical Lab. The competition will be used by NASA.
As part of the early stages of the project, Dr. DeLucas and his staff from UAB came to each participating school to explain the science of crystallization to the students and teachers. The grant also helped provide equipment, such as a high-powered microscope, that each school will get to keep after the project is over.
“It was really cool just sitting and learning about it,” said student Samantha Smith. “They explained that it isn’t easy to get the crystals to grow and that even the people from NASA sometimes have trouble doing it. They need a crystal with a certain geometric shape, so this is really interesting to see if we can figure out how to do it.”