Interviewing a student space flights experiment program winner: Audrey Cui

Senior Audrey Cui has always worked very diligently to meet her academic goals. During her junior year she participated in an experiment with her since graduated peers, Karen Cortina, Alejandra Robles, James Rohde and Hannah Terao. They decided to conduct an experiment called “Cell Development of Chenopodium Quinoa in Microgravity” for the Student Space Flights Experiment Program (SSEP) and their hard work allowed them to win the SSEP competition and send their quinoa to space. 


North Star: What kind of experiment did you conduct?

Audrey Cui: Our experiment was titled “Cell Development of Chenopodium Quinoa in Microgravity.” The competition parameters required us to complete the entire experiment in a 15 centimeter tube. Last year on Aug. 5th, the Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket transported our quinoa to space. When the quinoa was sent to space, International Space Station astronauts were able to germinate the quinoa seeds then fixate them in formalin. We analyzed the composition of the quinoa after flight in a UC Riverside molecular oncology lab. 


NS: Why did you and your group members choose to experiment on quinoa?

AC: Quinoa is the ideal food for any astronaut on long term space exploration. It’s a superfood that provides all essential amino acids for the human body and it is high in antioxidants. Deep space exploration is a very important theme in [Research and Development] and sustainability so a versatile and nutritious food like quinoa is essential. 


NS: How did your quinoa experiment get sent to space?

AC: Our project passed several checkpoints to make it to space. We won the SSEP competition at the regional level and then our experiment was analyzed by several safety committees to be cleared for flight. In the final presentation, we flew to Chantilly, Virginia and presented at the Smithsonian National Space Museum under the Discovery Space Shuttle in front of visitors, astronauts, other researchers and other students. Eventually we were one of the 41 out of 3683 experiment entries from across the globe that was sent to space. 


NS: What are some struggles you faced throughout your experiment?

AC: We entered the competition with promises from our school district that all expenses of our experiment were covered. Unfortunately, less than a month before our experiment was cleared for space, we received an email explaining our district funding was pulled. 


NS: How did you and your group members overcome these struggles?

AC: We were lucky enough to follow through with our project because of the fundraiser we hosted. Unbelievably, we raised over $3000 in only five days. Our donors consisted majorly of North students and alumni. I’m incredibly grateful to attend a high school that gives so much to its students because they literally made it possible for us to send quinoa to space!