Like scientists since the 1960s, he has long been interested in Caenorhabditis elegans — a species of tiny, translucent roundworm better known as C. elegans — because of a variety of properties that make it easy to study. It reproduces quickly, for one thing, spawning a new generation in only three days, which means investigators can observe genetic changes over a short span of time. Its genetic structure also can be easily mutated.
All that led Warren to Ted.com, an educational website, where he viewed a talk by Cynthia Kenyon, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco who said that if you mutate a single C. elegans gene, the so-called DAF gene, you extend its life span by 200 percent.
Research, she added, also suggests that altering the DAF gene in humans might expand the human life span — a statement that got Warren's attention.
Warren, who believes there will come a time when human beings routinely travel in space, saw this as an opportunity to test on a microscopic level how space travel might affect the travelers' life spans. To that end, he proposed sending two kinds of C. elegans into space: the variety found in nature ("wild type") and a type that would be genetically altered.
The astronauts aboard the International Space Station would tend his materials — a 6.39-millileter tube filled with liquid as well as 4,500 worms of each strain — during the 61/2 weeks they'll be on board. Warren would tend an identical set of materials on earth during the same period of time.
Then, after NASA and SpaceX – the Hawthorne, Calif.-based firm that built and launched the rocket — bring the capsule back via splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, they'd send the experiment back East, where Warren would be able to contrast the astronauts' results to his own, creating a clean comparison.
As Warren refined the experiment, he contacted scientists around the world for their input, and some were "positively giddy" to be involved, science teacher Gabriel said. Those included Nathaniel Szewcyk, a professor of clinical physiology at the University of Nottingham in England who was already studying how testing the worms could help open up travel into deep space.
Earlier this spring, Szewcyk flew to America at his own expense to visit Warren at Lackey High, and the pair gave a talk that was delivered online to students throughout Charles County. Other investigators at the National Institutes of Health became interested, offering Warren lab space and use of a special "worm sorter."
"It's just the kind of scientific research we want young people to experience," said Jeff Goldstein, director of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. "In the real world, science isn't done in isolation. It's a community activity."
Warren, who missed the launch this year because he was preparing for yet another AP exam, has been tracking the progress of Dragon since Tuesday. He appeared relaxed but said he was excited as the coupling neared.
Once the SpaceX capsule was docked to the Harmony capsule of the space station, crew members hauled in 1,000 pounds of basic supplies, much of it laundry, and the crate containing the student experiments.
As he walked the hallways between classes, though, Warren seemed for all the world like just another of the school's 1,200 students.
"I don't think you'd say Paul is normal," said principal Short of Warren, who is also a member of the varsity swim team and president of the school's Key Club. "But one of the things we love about him is that he is normal. He relates to everybody here. That has increased interest in what he's doing. It has been great for the county and the school."
Indeed, as the historic moment happened, Warren was discussing his plans for the evening, which included taking a girlfriend to the school prom. He didn't find out until later that the docking had taken place.
Even so, he seemed confident that all systems were go. "I shot for the stars," he said with a quiet smile, "and it looks like I'm making it."