This is what an astronaut looks like. More accurately, this is what the very first virus hunter astronaut in space looks like! Meet American astronaut Kate Rubins, who is part of a special mission team spending a number of months this summer on the International Space Station to study viruses. She is also the first US astronaut to go to space in 3 years, and the 59th woman in space period.
On July 6 she joined a Russian and Japanese astronaut as they launched from Kazakhstan on a Russian rocket to conduct 4 months worth of experiments in space. If you were a little confused about the wording in the title of this piece, hang onto your hats, because we’re about to get super science-y here!
According to the Chicago Tribune, Kate is attempting to complete the first ever DNA decoding, or “sequencing” in space with a pocket-sized device. She said the implications of DNA sequencing in space could have a major impact on how we study viruses on earth.
Kate is a biologist, holding a doctorate in cancer biology from Stanford University, who became an astronaut in 2009. She was selected for the 20th NASA astronaut class after helping develop the first smallpox infection model for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
She has studied many infectious diseases on earth, including Ebola, smallpox and others, in locations like the Congo. Unlike the hardcore safety suits she had to wear while dealing with these diseases on earth, in space it is a different story.
Because it is the first time studying DNA sequencing in space, NASA decided to stick with much easier and already well-understood samples of bacteria, a mouse genome and a virus. Before launching into space to conduct her ground-breaking work, control tests were done in an underwater facility in Florida.
The Chicago Tribune explains that DNA sequencing helps identify the chemicals that make up the building blocks of a virus, which, when studied, can reveal hereditary information passed from one generation of organisms to the next, and help researchers better understand what a virus does and how to potentially tackle it. Doing this ground-breaking research in space will allow Kate to understand bone loss and microbial changes, but it will also impact how a virus can be studied on earth.
“When we do things in a remote environment up here, we can understand how these technologies might work in remote places on Earth that don’t have access to good medical care,” she explained.
According to Wired.com, who interviewed Kate before she launched into space, although the ISS is home to a range of varied experiments ranging from growing lettuce leaves to tracking microgravity on the body, Kate’s level of on-the-ground experience in her field is a rarity, and therefore quite important.
By studying how human bone mass and cardiovascular systems are affected in microgravity, she will be able to provide crucial insight into human biology which will have an impact on the future of of how we treat diseases.
“I think it’s going to be amazing to see how the world of microbiology, molecular and cellular biology and human physiology is massively changed by microgravity. This is the only laboratory we have as humans to study gravity as a variable. There’s a world of insights to be gained into human health and disease by understanding how gravity and space radiation influence biology,” she told ABC News.
The pocket-sized device she will be using is creating by Oxford Nanopore Technologies in the UK, and is about the size of a small smartphone. The “MinION” hooks up to a computer or laptop with a USB cable, and weighs only 4 ounces. All her research will be beamed down to earth where a team of microbiologists will study the work Kate is doing and compare the way a virus acts in a weightless environment compared to the gravity on earth.
The MinION device may be in space for the very first time, but it is already being used by more than 1000 scientists in 30 countries around the world.
Aside from the new research she will be doing, Kate’s presence on this mission is also somewhat of an “experiment” in itself as there will be many in the science community eager to see the results she will provide. She is not only a leader in her field, but also a role model to many who are closely engaged in the movement to increase the amount of women in STEM jobs.
Earlier this year NASA announced that for the first time in history, their astronaut class will be 50-/50 male/female. That is a big freaking deal because there will be an entire generation of American girls growing up seeing humans who look like them in jobs that previous generations had no inclination that they were able to do. For more on this, read Hillary Clinton’s story about how she wrote a letter to NASA as a young girl asking how she could become an astronaut, only to be rejected because she was a “girl”. The irony here is that if she becomes president in November, she will be in charge of NASA, as they are an an independent agency of the executive branch of US Government.
While Kate Rubins did have the privilege of becoming an astronaut, she also has advice for girls who are interested in becoming future scientists.
“If you find something that you’re excited about and you’re interested in, my advice to young women…would be do what you’re really interested in and what drives and motivates you,” she said.
We can’t wait to see what astronaut Kate Rubins, space virus hunter, will uncover with her work!