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NC sophomore has a date with NASA

UPDATED: Mon., July 6, 2020

Alexander Popescu, who will be a junior at North Central this year, poses for a photo on  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Alexander Popescu, who will be a junior at North Central this year, poses for a photo on (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Here’s an out-of-this-world idea: A sophomore at North Central High School might help pave the way for astronauts to one day reach Mars.

Alex Popescu is only 15, but he’s formulated a hypothesis that could help solve one of the biggest obstacles to long-distance space travel: loss of bone density by astronauts.

The problem is almost as old as space travel. When astronauts are exposed to weightlessness, they lose about 1% of bone density per month.

Even worse, a survey of 13 space station astronauts found their bone strength dipped by at least 14% on average during their half-year stays aboard the orbiting laboratory.

That’s enough to leave astronauts vulnerable to major fractures when they return to Earth, and is one of the impediments of a journey to Mars that would last about 3 years.

The best way to build bone mass is through weight-bearing exercises such as walking or jogging, but it is difficult to duplicate weight-bearing exercise in a weightless environment.

Popescu, a student in NC’s acclaimed Institute of Science and Technology program, has done research into how Vitamin K2 could alleviate the problem, and the hypothesis is intriguing enough that scientists want to hear more.

Earlier this spring and just before the school closures, IST teacher Dan Shay told his class about the Genes in Space  program, a national competition affiliated with the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory that  draws thousands of entries each year.

“I had pitched a couple general project topics … and Alex came to me a couple of weeks later with an extensively researched, brilliant idea to look at the microbes related to bone density loss in space,” Shay said.

Shay helped with some of the experimental design and technological piece, “but the creative energy behind his project was all him,” Shay said.

“It’s almost like batting practice when I get a new research,” Shay said of Popescu’s performance. “Alex was like a beginning batter stepping up to the plate and hitting a grand slam.”

Popescu’s research centers on the human body’s gut microbiome: trillions of organisms that serve many purposes, including the synthesis of food and vitamins.

The central point of Popescu’s hypothesis is that during spaceflight, changes in the gut microbiome include a decrease in the numbers of bacterial genes synthesizing Vitamin K2.

Since Vitamin K2 has been demonstrated to play an important role in bone health, a lessening of that synthesis could explain bone-density loss in space.

If Popescu is correct, bone-density loss could be addressed by boosting Vitamin K2 intake during spaceflight.

Popescu got the news from Genes in Space a few weeks ago.

Since then, he and the other finalists are working with a post-doctoral student – Popescu’s partner is at Harvard – looking for potential holes in his hypothesis and improving the presentation and the experiment he will propose in early August.

In a normal year, Popescu and Shay would travel to Houston or Cape Canaveral, but a virtual presentation will be just as rewarding.

“I was surprised that I was selected,” said Popescu, who is home-schooled apart from the IST class. “It’s a real cool opportunity to have a chance to be able to test an experiment in space.”

Shay wasn’t a bit surprised.

“He’s a pretty special kid,” Shay said of Popescu, who as a freshman was taking organic chemistry and calculus classes at Spokane Falls Community College.

“It’s worth noting that some of these kids have some pretense,” Shay said. “But Alex is absolutely not. He’s a very modest, very humble and compassionate kid.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on July 6, 2020 to correct information about the sponsorship of the competition, which is run by Genes in Space, a private organization. Genes in Space is affiliated with the International Space Station U.S. Laboratory, not NASA. Also Popescu received the news that he’s a finalist in the competition from Genes in Space, not NASA.

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