Three Washington, DC, high school juniors were thrilled when their idea for removing lead from drinking water landed them a finalist position in a NASA-sponsored high school science competition, reports the Washington Post. The high-achieving team had developed a filter that could purify water in older school buildings. The team was doubly excited to be the only all-black, all-female entry. But after NASA opened the competition to public voting, things went horribly wrong. When Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner, and Bria Snell, all 17, turned to social media to promote their project, users of 4chan’s “politically incorrect” board, known to be a place where racism is often spewed and hoaxes are generated, jumped in. They said the team was only getting attention due to race and attempted to hack the system to change vote totals and throw the contest to a team of teenage boys, reports CNN.
NASA had to end public voting early in order to protect the results; it says it has an accurate record of the results before hackers interfered, and judges will also assess the projects. On Monday NASA issued a statement decrying the hacking attempt and offering encouragement to young scientists: "NASA continues to support outreach and education for all Americans, and encourages all of our children to reach for the stars." For now, the team is focusing on the positive. “In the STEM field [science, technology, engineering, math] we are underrepresented,” Sharrieff says. “It’s important to be role models for a younger generation who want to be in the STEM field but don’t think they can.” The winning team will visit NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for two days of workshops. NASA will announce the winners this month.