The Cosmotronic Unicorns of Haven Middle School: top row: Niko Blanton, Aidan Thomson; second row from top: Alex Machado, Harper Jamison, Olivia Breivald; third row from top: Sasha Van Den Berg, Liam Phillips; bottom row: Avery Labno, Zach Matthews and Luke Lister. Members of the team will travel next week to Turkey, joining more than 100 other teams from more than 70 other countries.

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A group of Evanston seventh-graders will be traveling to Turkey at the end of this month to compete in the First Lego League Robotics World Invitational Tournament, where they will share their award-winning research project on how to solve dysbiosis in astronauts. Dysbiosis is a term used to describe a microbial imbalance in the gut. 

The Cosmotronic Unicorns was formed when a group of parents heard about the competition and thought their kids might enjoy it. The 10 students who make up the team attend Haven Middle School and have known each other since their kindergarten days at Willard School.

 This is the team’s third year competing in the event. The first year, the team participated in the regional competition at King Arts School.  The second year, they advanced to State.  This year, they won at the State level and were subsequently invited to attend the tournament on May 22-25 in Gaziemir, Turkey, a district of Izmir Province, for their research into the gut health of astronauts.

“We’ve gotten faster and better over the last three years,” said Liam Phillips. “It’s more fun now because we know what everyone’s strengths are. We all have different roles.”

The competition has three tiers: design, build and program an autonomous robot using Lego Mindstorms technology; embrace the core values of critical thinking, team-building and presentation skills; and create an innovative solution to a real world problem facing today’s scientists.

It was the team’s research and development of a solution to a real world problem that helped them advance to the tournament in Turkey.

The team decided to solve the problem of dysbiosis in astronauts after reading about the Kelly twins. Astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly participated in an unprecedented NASA study in which Scott Kelly spent a year in space on the International Space Station while his identical twin brother, Mark Kelly, remained on Earth. Scientists studied the twins’ physiology, memory abilities and genes before, during and after that year.

“One of the things the scientists found was that Scott Kelly’s gut micro biome was not as balanced as his brother’s when he returned,” said Harper Jamison.

“The micro biome is a collection of microbes that help keep a person healthy. When the microbes get out of balance, many illnesses can arise like cancer, colitis and even death,” Harper added.

“We realized that dysbiosis is a big problem on Earth and that it would be an even bigger problem in space,” said Sasha Van Den Berg.

“On Earth, we are surrounded by other humans and animals that expose us to good bacteria, but in space there is none of that. Astronauts also have to deal with radiation which can have a negative impact on one’s micro biome,” said Sasha.

After reaching out to several experts in the field, the team came up with a solution. They would create a Personalized Probiotic Machine or PPM.

The PPM analyzes fecal samples and transfers the findings to Claribel, the computer software program that determines which beneficial microbes the person is lacking. Claribel then creates a personalized supplement using specific microbes that are stored in individual containment boxes. After taking the probiotic supplement for a certain length of time, the gut imbalance should be resolved.

The team is eager to showcase the project at the World Invitational. While not every member of the team will be traveling to Turkey, they plan to communicate with their teammates throughout the event.

“We hope to make it feel like everyone is there, because it has been a team effort,” said Sasha.

Seth Thomson, a parent and one of the team’s coaches, says it has taken an incredible amount of devotion from the kids and parents to get to this point. The team met twice a week throughout the school year and up to four times a week in the final month leading up to the event.

“As parents and coaches, it’s been rewarding to see them work and grow together,” said Mr. Thomson.  

After Turkey, the team will take a brief hiatus before reconvening to make plans for next year’s competition. 

Anne Bodine

Anne Bodine, Community News Editor, has been a part of The Evanston RoundTable since 2008 as a reporter covering businesses and institutions; arts and entertainment; and health and wellness. More recently,...