April 9th, 2018

Meet the Mentors - 2018


The Genes in Space Team is comprised of many outstanding and passionate individuals. The mentors for the 2018 US contest are no exception. Meet this year's all star mentoring team: 


Matthew Smith
Graduate Student in Molecules, Cells, and Organisms PhD Program, Harvard Center for Brain Science

 "I’m a 4th year PhD student, and I’m interested in the forces that shape behavior. Specifically I study how behavior and personality are crafted through unique experiences, genetics, and random molecular events. We are working to predict behavior of individuals by using statistical models generated by measured neural activity and neural anatomy."

"I’ve been fascinated by science from a young age, which was motivated through learning that my mother had a rare and understudied disease. That sparked my interest in understanding how such tiny molecules can shape very complex systems. While earning my undergraduate degree at Michigan State University, I worked in a photosynthetic efficiency lab, where we studied the energetics of how tiny molecules convert light into biomass (photosynthesis) in plants. I’m currently working in a behavioral neurobiology lab where we use techniques from variety of fields, (including molecular biology, engineering, and computer science) to answer our biological questions about individuality in behavior." 

"The Genes in Space program presents a unique and exciting opportunity to aspiring young scientists. It’s not everyday that you can design an experiment and literally send it to space! I think this is a brilliant way to get students actively thinking about groundbreaking questions and the most effective experimental design to answer these questions. The GiS program gives the students creative freedom then pairs them with a mentor to refine their idea, which is similar to my first experiences as a scientist. It’s very meaningful for me to be on the mentoring side of this relationship and pay forward all the great training I’ve received. My advice to the participants is to find the questions that truly excite you, then take your grandiose ideas and hypotheses and determine how to effectively test them using the tools we provide you. Be creative, have fun, and best of luck!"


Kiana Mohajeri
Graduate Student, Center for Genomic Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School

"I'm currently a 3rd-year PhD student researcher. My research is focused on understanding how large-scale chromosomal rearrangements change DNA compaction in the nucleus and drive neurodevelopmental disorders. I first became interested in genetics when I took my first biology class in high school. I love being a scientist because it's a lifelong career of learning and contributing to knowledge. I find the study of genetics fascinating because it provides a means both to look back and understand our history as humans but also lean forward and solve puzzles related to health and disease."

"This is my second year as a Genes in Space mentor. Pioneering studies of genetics in space opens up the exciting potential to test phenomenon we observe to be true on earth in a new environment. I very much look forward to working with GiS participants and encourage you all to ask lots of questions, read the judging criteria, and seek out ideas you think are especially important to investigate."

Read more about Kiana.


John Hatch
Graduate Student in Developmental and Regenerative Biology, Harvard Stem Cell Institute

"I study the molecular processes that build neural circuits in the developing brain. Growing up, I was always fascinated by how things work, but I began seriously considering a career in science during a summer internship at the National Institutes of Health while I was in high school- I'll never forget the way it felt the first time I saw a living brain light up during a functional MRI scan. Later experiences during my undergraduate research at the University of Virginia and at the NIH after college have shaped my interests, motivating me to study the mechanisms that make a single cell grow and form an entire complex organism."

"This is my second year as a Genes in Space mentor. The Genes in Space program is a fantastic opportunity for young scientists to learn how to design experiments and contribute groundbreaking knowledge to the scientific community. This would be a great competition if it "only" took place on Earth- but these students will work on the very young field of space biology, where so little is known and so much can be learned! To all the participants, I only encourage you to propose a topic that really excites you. Your enthusiasm and passion will always be the best driving force behind successful science."

Read more about John.


Holly Christensen 
Graduate Student, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, MIT 

I currently study histone modifications in male germ cells (sperm). I have always known I wanted to go into biology, however, it wasn't until I was in middle school that I became interested in genetics and molecular biology. My interest in genetics stemmed from my personal desire to understand how my sister and I could be genetically related, but still very different in both appearance and personality!" 

"This will be my fourth year as a Genes in Space mentor. I decided to mentor a Genes in Space Finalist again because I greatly enjoyed mentoring my Finalists! As an undergraduate research assistant, I had both a great graduate student mentor and a wonderful faculty mentor, who always took the time to answer my questions, help me interpret my results, and give me advice. Having benefited enormously from great mentoring, I knew that I wanted to be that type of mentor for someone else. I'm looking forward to mentoring a new finalist this year!”

Read more about Holly. 


Guy Bushkin, PhD
Postdoctoral Fellow, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, MIT

"I'm studying a mechanism that cells use to fine tune the expression of their genes. Specifically, my research focuses on mRNA modifications. These modifications occur in living cells following transcription, and function in gene regulation in diverse processes such as differentiation, development, and cancer. One of these modifications is mRNA methylation, and I study its role in meiosis using the budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae as a model."

"I’ve been fascinated with understanding how life works at the molecular level since I was in high school, and I hope to make many contributions to this endeavor throughout my scientific career. My other passion is space exploration. The Genes in Space competition makes it possible to actively participate in the interface of these two fields while providing mentorship to the next generation of explorers."

"This is an exciting time to be doing research in both biology and astronomy. The field of genetics is undergoing a revolution with the introduction of new genome sequencing and editing technologies, and we are learning that planets that might support life are ubiquitous across our galaxy. Moreover, a new space race that involves private companies in addition to governments is emerging. The science that we do today may help humanity to reach further than we ever have, and I feel truly fortunate to be a part of it. My advice for Genes in Space contestants is to be inspired by these recent developments, but to make sure that the proposed experiments are doable in the ISS setting and address gaps in our current knowledge in a meaningful way."


Kutay Deniz Atabay
Graduate Student, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, MIT  

"I am generally interested in neurodevelopment, neurogenetics and space life sciences. I am currently studying regeneration (replacement of tissues or organs when they are damaged or lost) using a flatworm called planaria as a model system. Specifically I am interested in self-organization during regeneration in the nervous system. "

"This is my fourth year as a mentor for Genes in Space. Life Science experiments aboard the International Space Station provide unique insights into how biological systems function and respond to their environments. The knowledge we gain from these experiments apply to many different levels of complexity from bacterial gene expression regulation to systemic changes in the human nervous system. The Genes in Space Team makes it possible for us to become a part of this wonderful journey that is advancing our horizons in so many ways. Genes in Space is also singular in the way that it introduces a new technology to space station while engaging students, teachers, and mentors to ask and provide answers to actual space life science questions. Being a part of the team is a distinct privilege, allowing us to contribute, to inspire and to further mankind’s journey beyond the solar system."

Read more about Deniz.