NEB Podcast Episode #22 -
Interview with Genes in Space: High School Science Performed on the Space Station

< Return to NEB Podcast Home



Interviewers: Lydia Morrison, Marketing Communications Writer & Podcast Host, New England Biolabs, Inc.
Interviewees: Katy Martin, Program Coordinator, Genes in Space; Deniz Atabay, Mentor, Genes in Space; 


Lydia Morrison: Welcome to the Lessons from Lab and Life podcast. I'm your host, Lydia Morrison. I hope that our podcast offers you some new perspective. Today, I'm joined by scientists Katy Martin, and Deniz Atabay, who are members of the Genes in Space program. This program offers high school students the opportunity to design molecular biology experiments and to actually send those experiments to the International Space Station to be carried out.

Lydia Morrison: Hi everyone. Thanks so much for being here today.

Katy Martin: Hey, thanks for having us. It's our pleasure.

Lydia Morrison: Katy is the Genes in Space program lead. I was wondering, Katy, if you could tell me what the mission of the Genes in Space program is?

Katy Martin: Yeah, sure thing. Our mission, in short, is to get students excited about science and engineering. We do that by providing them with an opportunity to access one of the most amazing science platforms available, the International Space Station. By flying one student's experiment up to the International Space Station each year, we kind of hope that, that can inspire other students to get involved and see that the barrier isn't maybe as high as they thought it was. They can get involved in research too.

Lydia Morrison: What an amazing opportunity for students. How do you promote participation in the program?

Katy Martin: I think in general, teachers are the best folks we can enlist to encourage participation among students. Certainly, we have a lot of students who find us on their own, but I think it's best when students learn about the contest from their teachers. We have a lot of teachers who have adopted the contest into their curriculum. It's a great way to teach experimental design, teach students how to step through the scientific process. It can also provide a great platform to introduce your students to biotechnology.

Katy Martin: The idea of the contest is that students propose genetics experiments to do on the ISS using biotechnology that's available up on the station. We have a loan program called the Lab in a Box program where we actually loan biotechnology kits out to teachers so that they can train their students in how to use that same technology that's up on the station in their own classrooms.

Katy Martin: I think when students get a chance to do that, they see, kind of, the barrier maybe isn't as high as they thought it was both to use biotechnology and also to enter the competition and propose an experiment to do in space.

Lydia Morrison: Can you tell us about the role that mentors play in the Genes in Space program?

Katy Martin: Yeah. Mentors are critical, super-crucial part of our program. How the contest generally works is students submit their ideas. We receive hundreds and hundreds of ideas. Our scientists with Genes in Space, they sort through that big pile of ideas and pull out the top five that we think are the most launch-worthy ideas that are basically ready to go to the ISS.

Katy Martin: For those top five finalists, each one is assigned a mentor. Our Genes in Space mentors are grad students and postdocs who work in our local area of Cambridge, Massachusetts. They work with the students intensely over the course of a couple months to help the students refine those initial ideas and make them more scientific, incorporating the proper controls and things like that. They also help the students prepare an oral presentation that the students will present to our panel of judges who are going to choose just one winner from the five finalists.

Katy Martin: I think our students are all entering the competition because they want a chance to launch their experiment to space, obviously. To me, the real prize of this is that mentoring relationship that they get to form, a prize as they work on their scientific idea. Your early relationships with mentors are really critical in any scientist's life, and so I think getting to lay that foundation with the amazing mentors that we have, I couldn't ask for a better way to start my scientific career if I were one of these students.

Lydia Morrison: Absolutely. We're lucky to have one of the Genes in Space mentors here with us today. Thanks so much for being here, Deniz.
Deniz Atabay: Thank you for having us.

Lydia Morrison:Deniz, I was wondering if you could tell me, you've been a mentor with the Genes in Space program for a long time. How long have you been working with the program?
Deniz Atabay: I've been working with the Genes in Space program for the last five years. I started in the second year of my PhD, and I just completed PhD in June.

Lydia Morrison: Congratulations.
Deniz Atabay: And became a post-doc, so with them for the last five years.

Lydia Morrison: Awesome. What do you love about it?
Deniz Atabay: How much time do we have?
Deniz Atabay: Simply everything. I love everything about Genes in Space; the community, the kids you're working with, like high school students, and the experiments that we get to do together. Sending the experiment to the Space Station, enabling high school students to do science in this way, in this meaningful way and really pushing forward space research and molecular biology capacity for us to do molecular biology on the Space Station. Involving high school students while doing this is amazing.

Lydia Morrison: Yeah. It's certainly an inspirational way to promote science to kids, but there must be some things that are hard about it. What's the toughest part about being a mentor?
Deniz Atabay: I think, for me, the whole experience is just beautiful. I wouldn't classify any component as a tough component, but there are some minor challenges. Students that apply to this program are from all over the United States, and there are different time zones, they sometimes travel. After they get selected, these finalists, we start working with them through Skype calls. For example, this year, one of my students was in India and then the other was in China and I was in Boston. We were scheduling Skype calls using heat maps for availability. For some of us, it's early in the morning, late at night. That was a challenge. Other than that, I can't pick any component, basically, and classify it as a tough component.

Lydia Morrison: Who do you think benefits the most from the Genes in Space program? Do you feel like it's the mentors, or do you feel like it's the students?
Deniz Atabay: I think it's an enriching experience for both sides. Mentors definitely benefit by interacting with the students, thinking about these ideas they normally wouldn't maybe think about. Students, they basically learn how to design experiments, a real life experiment. How to work with constraints for molecular biology experiment. How to think, rightly, and ask questions properly, basically, phrase the correct question. This whole process, basically, brings both sides together. It's a strong bond in the end that is formed between the two sides. I think it's a mutualistic relationship between the two sides.

Lydia Morrison: That's great. What do you feel like the impact of being a mentor in the Genes in Space program - what do you feel like that impact was on your PhD progress?
Deniz Atabay: I think it makes the path you walk on more unique. PhD is a really interesting, amazing experience, but when you have this outside component that is basically also science-related and education-related, and then there's this wonderful community that comes with it, and then you're basically thinking about problems that involve space and space research which is the coolest thing. Overall, I think it makes it a more unique journey. For me, it was like that, at least.

Lydia Morrison: I can imagine. It's almost like a silver lining because I know slogging through your PhD can be tough sometimes and there can be a lot of disappointments. It must be wonderful to have a scientific outlet that's really inspirational and that there's just tons of enthusiasm behind.
Deniz Atabay: Definitely. The moment you get to see this rocket climbing to carry your experiments, your students' experiments with the students together, it's a special moment, definitely.

Lydia Morrison: Did you cry?
Deniz Atabay: There were tears in my eyes. It's amazing what also humanity can achieve. Like this piece of mental climbing up in the sky carrying our experiments. It's just beautiful.

Lydia Morrison: Amazing feats of engineering and science. Do you feel like being a mentor made achieving your PhD easier or harder?
Deniz Atabay: It made the journey more interesting. It is also an intellectual diversity. Basically, the ideas that you interact with. It is good for a PhD student to interact with a broad bit of ideas and then have a community to basically go back to and share the journey with.

Lydia Morrison: I just wanted to say a very sincere thank you to both of you for your efforts in mentoring high school students through this program. I think it's really amazing to see a program that empowers kids really to be able to bring their amazing ideas, because kids really do have the best outside the box, like no limitations ideas, and help them think critically through them, think about asking the right questions, and amazing to see those ideas sent out on space. Thank you so much.
Deniz Atabay: Thank you.

Katy Martin: Thank you.

Lydia Morrison: Thanks for joining us for this episode. Be sure to check out the transcript for helpful links to further resources. To learn more about the Genes in Space program, visit The 2020 contest is currently underway and will accepting applications through April 17th.

Lydia Morrison: Tune in next time when I'll be joined by James Bevington who is a graduate of the Masters in Space Studies program at the International Space University, and is currently finishing up his PhD at the University of South Wales where some of his experiments have been conducted on the International Space Station.

Lydia Morrison: Be sure to tune in and hear how science and space is more accessible than ever.


Content is covered by patents, trademarks and/or copyrights owned or controlled by New England Biolabs, Inc. For more information, please email us at [email protected]. The use of these products may require you to obtain additional third party intellectual property rights for certain applications.



Explore NEB's other multimedia offerings:

video_icon NEB TV Webinar Series

If you are enjoying our podcasts, you may also be interested in our NEB TV webinars.
video_icon Video Library

Browse our extensive selection of videos by area of interest, and find helpful tips on product usage, troubleshooting guides, video protocols, scientific tutorials, and more.


About your host:


Lydia Morrison
NEB Marketing Communications Writer

Lydia is a scientist by training and a communicator by nature, and has a knack for asking one too many questions.

Loading Spinner