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ASM Microbe 2017 Keynote Speaker Brings DNA Sequencing to Space

EY: There has been some work on the microbiome in space, right?

KR: Yes, there has been some work on decompression studies on how they might sense microgravity and whether it does change gene expression and does the lower radiation change. Perhaps we may use engineered microbes [that] may help us with our waste management system.

EY: It seems like the number of potential questions you could ask is vast. How do you decide which ones?

KR: Its’ huge. We only have one laboratory and we are time-limited. Right now, we are committed only to 2024. So, NASA will look at prioritizations, and [attempt] to determine from which experiments can we get the most benefit.

Following the conversation, the audience was then allowed to ask a few questions of their own.

Audience member: How does this benefit us on earth?

KR: Part of it is basic research. Sometimes, we don’t know what the outcome is going to be. We have a new variable with zero gravity, but we also have applied research like questions of bone loss and osteoporosis. We are interested in this bone loss, but also what happens when you rebuild it. I tell you from firsthand experience, you experience some serious neurovestibular disturbances out there. There are cardiac and immune changes as well. I’m really focusing on the human health research, but there is also the question of how [to] keep someone alive for so many years. We [are] working a lot on things like CO2 scrubbing [and] water filtration, and so, there are practical parallels there.

A: Have you ever thought to yourself, ‘I never thought I would be this far in my life.’ Was there a moment where you suddenly felt an imposter syndrome, like, ‘This isn’t me, I can’t get my mind around [this]?’

KR: I think that a lot of the operational training really prepares for this. You feel that when you experience as a researcher: Can I get this grant or can I get this paper? But [when you come] to NASA, that is what is drilled into you. You have to deal with the situation. You are the only one that is going to be there. So, you don’t even know if you are going to be any good at this, but they put you in front of an airplane and you are going to have to solo it in 20 hours. The message [is], you’ve got to leave this self-doubt behind. You can absolutely do it. You can handle anything that’s thrown your way. I am not a particularly capable human being. Let me just disavow this notion right now. I’m fairly ordinary and I’ve been lucky; I’ve been stuck in some interesting situations. If I put you in the seat of a T38 plane, you would learn how to fly as well!

(Audience vigorously applauds.)
W. Todd Penberthy, PhD is a medical writer with over 4 years of experience based in Orlando, Florida. Prior to that Todd was a professor directing biomedical research using zebrafish models of human disease with expertise in orthomolecular niacin-related science for 10 years. He can be reached at WTPENBER@MAC.COM. 
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