Powering Human Spaceflight with Bioscience!
“‘You can be absolutely anything you want to be. You can be President of the country if that’s what you want to be.’ I realize how important it was for me to hear those words as an impressionable young child. It made me believe that if I worked hard, I could achieve my goals, whatever they may be.”
Dr. Sharmila Bhattacharya, Chief Scientist for Astrobionics, is on a mission to make spaceflight safe for human beings. As the head of the Biomodel Performance and Behavior laboratory at NASA Ames Research Center, she leads experiments to help us better understand how exposure to conditions in space (such as radiation and lack of gravity) affect human beings. One experiment is the Fly Immunity and Tumors experiment, in which fruit flies were sent into outer space! Not only is Dr. Bhattacharya an impressive scientist, she’s also an inspirational mentor for her daughter and others who want to explore STEM. Read on to learn more about Dr. Bhattacharya and how she’s preparing us to explore space!
Born in South Africa but raised in India, Dr. Bhattacharya dreamed of one day becoming a pilot like her father. When she asked her father if she could be a pilot even though she was a girl, he replied, “You can be absolutely anything you want to be. You can be President of the country if that’s what you want to be.” It’s this life philosophy that Bhattacharya hopes to pass on to the next generation: “Now, many years later, I am much older and have my own daughter, and I realize how important it was for me to hear those words as an impressionable young child. It made me believe that if I worked hard, I could achieve my goals, whatever they may be.”
After graduate school, Dr. Bhattacharya went on to pursue post-doctoral work in neurobiology at Stanford University. During this period, she saw an ad in a newspaper. It was a job ad for NASA, and they needed a scientist who had a background in studying yeast and fruit flies–the organisms she had studied throughout her academic career. Of finding this opportunity, Dr. Bhattacharya says it was an example of how prior life experience can prepare a person for an unexpected opportunity: “This was not the standard career that I had heard talked about before, yet it had all the elements of exactly what interested me and work that I would love to do for the rest of my life.” She started working at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California shortly thereafter and has been a NASA scientist ever since.
How do you figure out how an organism, like a human body, will respond under certain conditions without actually submitting the organism to those conditions? Like other scientists, Dr. Bhattacharya and her team perform experiments on other organisms to get the information they need to make sure that an activity is safe for humans. Enter fruit flies! The fruit fly is a fairly simple organism, but it is biologically similar in some respects to humans, making it a great organism on which to test space conditions. Remember, in space there are environmental elements that we generally don’t have to worry about on Earth, such as intense radiation and the absence of gravity. By sending fruit flies into space and maintaining a control group (a set of flies that stays on Earth but otherwise exists under the same conditions as the test group), Dr. Bhattacharya and her team can draw conclusions about how certain space conditions may affect human beings. For example, when Dr. Bhattacharya and her team got an experimental group back from space and gave them an infection, they found that the flies’ blood cells were “less efficient at clearing out [the] bacteria” than the cells in flies who had not been in space. As she continues to gather data about how space conditions affect organisms that are biologically similar to human beings, NASA can then prepare solutions to remedy any potential negative health effects of space exploration.
Dr. Bhattacharya told us how important it is that parents and educators get involved in helping kids, especially girls, get excited about STEM: “Talk to them and tell them what fun it is to work in STEM. You’re always discovering new things, if you’re working in a medically related field you also feel like in the long run you’re helping people in some way. Read biographies of great scientists to them, Marie Curie and the like.” Her advice also includes sharing your enthusiasm and knowledge about these subjects with kids. She even turned a spilled pen incident into an opportunity to teach her daughter about chemistry: “I used nail polish remover to remove the stains and I told her that often when stains are not water soluble, organic solvents can work.” Surrounding kids with books, taking them to museums, and getting them involved in summer science programs also help. As part of their STEM education, kids should also learn to code, as Sharmila explains: “It’s like learning a new language. The earlier you do it, the more easily the language comes to you.”
Just as experimentation is powering the spaceflight innovations at NASA, so can kids learn by trial and error as they code! Programming inherently involves the scientific method, as kids develop a theory of what their code blocks will produce and then put that theory to the test. Tynker is a great platform for kids to practice this kind of problem-solving!
We’re so inspired by Dr. Sharmila Bhattacharya, whose life demonstrates that great mentors, believing in yourself, working hard, and pursuing fields you’re interested in are all ingredients in the recipe for success!
Image photo credit and Women@NASA blog content are courtesy of NASA.
Read our previous Women in STEM post about Christina Deoja, who uses creativity to power her work as an electrical engineer at NASA!