The School Zone: News


Here’s great student news worth retelling from recent months:

Four highly gifted middle school students from the Spring Branch Academic Institute (SBAI) earned one of five Junior Scientist Awards for a national contest submission focusing on microgravity, chromosomes and cell division.

SBAI student team members and award winners are Jessica Youngblood, Jonathan (Trey) Clark, Lucy Hamilton and Shelby Blackwood.

These four teenagers prove that the so-called Tik-Tok generation is far more than fancy dance steps and fast uploads. They dream about deep space experiments on human chromosomes. Yes, these are whip-smart young scientists. 

The students, now all ninth-graders at the district campus program known as SBAI, submitted a group proposal to the Genes in Space 2020 contest last school year, picking this biology topic: The effect of microgravity on chromosome separation during cell division.

In separate but related news, the science team’s teacher, Mohammad Haidar, Ed.D., was named as a Spring Branch Education Foundation (SBEF) grant recipient recently. His winning SBEF grant was titled “Performing Gene Cloning, Sequencing and Analysis of Genetic Material at SBAI Science.”  

Started in 2013-14 as an elementary level program, SBAI now provides individualized instruction across elementary and secondary grades at the appropriate pace, depth and complexity needed by its eligible students.

The school-within-a-school program now operates at Thornwood Elementary and Stratford High, with elective classes conducted at Spring Forest Middle. SBISD is the only public school district in the region offering this learning option for highly gifted students testing as eligible in one or more areas.

The Genes in Space 2020 contest was rated a success despite the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 550 student teams from across the nation making proposals, including 160 teams composed of middle school students in grades 7-8 like the SBAI team.

The Junior Scientist Award was given to the top five submissions in the middle school group. “All these young scientists wowed our selection committee with their outside-the-box thinking and impressive command of the science,” stated the Genes in Space organizers.

The SBAI students wrote in their award submission, “We propose to test the effect of microgravity on kinetochores, specifically the TUBA 1A gene, and how space alters chromosome separation. The reason [we view] chromosome separation . . . important is because that is how our cells replicate. This is how we grow, and how our body replaces dead cells.”

The students also speculate that the chromosome separations might function differently in space, and if true, “it could result in the human body mutating or evolving due to a massive change in the change in the replication  of human cells.”

In addition to the SBAI team, Junior Scientist Awards were issued to student teams from the Pierrepont School in Westport, Conn.; BASIS San Antonio Shavano in San Antonio, Texas; the University of Illinois Laboratory High School in Urbana, Ill.; and Tri-North Middle School in Bloomington, Ind.

DNA Discovery System

To reward the SBAI students' accomplishment, Genes in Space is sending the school a DNA Discovery System, which is a machine that amplifies DNA.

Now in its sixth year of operation, Genes in Space’s competition for students in grades 7-12 focuses on designing biology experiments that address real-world challenges in space exploration. Previous award winners have achieved milestones, including the first use of gene editing technology in space.

Founded by a science toolmaker, miniPCR bio, and Boeing, Genes in Space competition is sponsored by the ISS National Laboratory, Math for America and New England Biolabs.

To learn more, please visit:

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