“It was pretty cool,” said student Hannah Thomson. “NASA didn’t know.”
Hannah is one of several students in grades four to six at St. Brother Andre Elementary School in Ottawa who are part of a NASA initiative called “Cubes in Space.”
The program helps children and teenagers around the world launch experiments aboard NASA rockets.
For their experiment, the students between the ages of nine and 11 focused on the EpiPen, a common medical tool found in classrooms across the country. The injection device is used to reverse the effects of life-threatening allergies.
The kids had a cosmic question: would an EpiPen still work in space?
“I thought it was brilliant,” said University of Ottawa chemist Paul Mayer, who helped analyze the group’s findings.
“The first part of doing science is asking the right questions and they asked a fantastic question.”
The students took samples of epinephrine, the active ingredient in EpiPens, and put them in tiny cubes, which were sent on board a NASA rocket and balloon.
Once the cubes returned to Earth, their contents were brought to a lab at the University of Ottawa.
There, Mayer and his team made a remarkable discovery: the epinephrine no longer worked, stunning the career chemists.
“There is an interaction with the cosmic radiation that comes when you leave the atmosphere,” he explained.
In fact, part of the sample became toxic in space.
“The epinephrine came back only 87 per cent epinephrine,” explained student Isaiah Falconer. “The other 13 per cent was converted into benzoic acid, which at that quantity was highly poisonous.”
The findings proved the children’s hypothesis and are spurring new questions about potential risks for astronauts with severe allergies. “To find out (that) scientists who have been working for years and years on this and then us elementary school kids discover it, it’s really cool,” said student Antonio Lucifero.
Their teacher Deborah Quail-Blier couldn’t believe the results.
“We were all shocked and excited,” she said. “My students are very forward-thinking. They’re already anticipating people going to the moon and then beyond and colonizing Mars.”
Her class is now preparing to travel to Virginia in June to share their findings with NASA.
They’re also anticipating future careers in science. Benjamin Sum wants to build rockets when he grows up and is leaning on his experience in this NASA experiment.
“You feel like you’re making a real change,” said Sum. “A lot of the time it feels like it’s just adults. But kids can actually be involved.”
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