I’m sitting in the cockpit of the Space Shuttle Discovery, surrounded by flickering buttons, knobs and dials all calling for my attention as the countdown to liftoff begins. Our mission is to repair a faulty satellite, and as shuttle commander, the success and safety of my crew ultimately belongs to me. I hear the final “3, 2, 1…” over the communications radio, and I sit straight up, ready.
Disclaimer: It’s 1988, I’m 10 years old, and we’ll never leave the ground outside Kennedy Space Center, where I’ve come for a week of Space Camp. That didn’t matter—if you had asked that girl what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would have stood confidently, eyes wide with a child’s enthusiasm, and answered, “Astronaut.”
Most children of the ’80s would have said the same thing. Yet one of them— a star-gazing girl from California’s Napa Valley—would do it. Even at a young age, Kate Rubins’ passion for science gave her a drive and focus beyond her years, one that led her to UC San Diego before her trajectory would leave this planet.
Our paths may never have crossed while on campus, but there is still a common bond as alumnae—a sense of pride for what she’s accomplished and for what is yet to come from all the girls, yesterday and today, who share that same dream and drive.
TRITON: Not only are we UC San Diego alumnae, but we also both went to Space Camp as kids—I’m curious: what captivated you about space at a young age?
RUBINS: I can remember being fascinated with space from the time that I was a really small child. It was always one of my goal careers. You ask a little kid what they want to do—I always said “astronaut, biologist and geologist.” My sense of imagination was probably a little bit overactive, but at Space Camp I felt like I was doing real astronaut training. They have machines that spin you around and put you off balance, but one of the most critical things they teach is working together with a group to put together a mission. I had a smaller role in the mission—I think I was like, backroom science—but I was really excited to be a part of that group with my team members.
It’s amazing that you were doing science even then, and that you were also interested in biology, which you’d study at UC San Diego. Where did that come from?
When I was around 15 or 16, I got really interested in DNA. My dad took me to a DNA conference at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and that was right around the time of recombinant DNA, and I became completely fascinated thinking about DNA inside our cells. I also had been working for a county public health program to do HIV education, and they actually brought in researchers and physicians to educate you about the virus. So the fact that HIV viruses actually integrated into DNA was fascinating and I thought, “This is something that I really want to study; this affects human health. I want to learn more about this as an undergraduate.”
Why did you choose UC San Diego?
I was looking for a school with an incredibly strong science program. I knew that I wanted to be a molecular biology major and UCSD offered that—a lot of schools just have general biology, but I was interested in molecular aspects. It’s such a renowned research institution, too, and I never thought, “Well, do I want to be a doctor? Do I want to be a researcher?” I always knew. Even when I was 16, I was like, “I want to be a researcher; I want to study viruses; I want to study DNA; I want to study the human genome.” So I looked for schools that had a strong research program in those areas and even did research at the Salk Institute while an undergrad.
Right, and it’s just across the street.
Absolutely. And the fact that they integrate so well with UC San Diego—having that base of an incredible research community surrounding the university is a powerful combination.
So from there you went on to Stanford, and then field research in the Congo, which is a remarkable trajectory considering you ended up in space.But what was the most rewarding of your work in the Congo?
I really enjoyed living in a completely different way of life. We spent so much time with the villagers out there, really working alongside folks for months. That’s different than just going through for a week and collecting samples. We were trying to understand: How do diseases spread? Why do they spread? What are the factors that influence disease transmission? In order to do that, you need a long-term, ongoing research study. But there was also patient care provided; we had people come from all over for treatment. So actually seeing the healthcare benefit and how medical care—or lack of access to medical care—in this incredibly resource-poor setting contributes to disease spread, observing that firsthand was fascinating.
Did you ever think about the danger involved, with working with viruses like Ebola and others?
Humans tend to be really scared of things that are unknown. We’re not very rational about danger, so we grow afraid about things like Ebola or smallpox when, statistically speaking, it’s not nearly as risky as just getting in our cars and driving down the highway. Same thing with space life—statistically, it’s more dangerous than working with Ebola, but you learn to trust your training and the amount of analysis that goes into safety. You’re always taking on some kind of risk, but whether working with the CDC with smallpox or now with NASA, you trust the safety review and the processes to protect people from unnecessary risk.
Speaking of space life, how does one go from the Congo to the Space Station? At what point did you say, “I want to do this?” I’ve always considered astronauts somewhat superhuman, like you’re bred to be an astronaut.
(Laughs) We’re certainly not superhuman—we’re normal humans. But how it came about, I was actually just talking to a friend one day, and she was looking at job applications online, and she said, you know, “There’s a job application for being an astronaut.”
Right. And how can you say no to that? The dream and fascination, I mean. What was the most fascinating part of your research on the International Space Station?
Well, I’m a little biology centered. We participated in over 275 experiments on board and I was really fascinated by what happens to physiology in space. You no longer have gravity pulling blood flow down into your legs, so there’s fluid shifts in all of our physiology, and that changes things: your cardiovascular system, your nerve-vestibular system gets completely out of whack; it’s fascinating to watch the human brain adapt to that. We did experiments that look at neural mapping, we used ultrasound to look at vessels, arteries, chambers within our heart, trying to understand the cardiovascular physiology.
We did cellular experiments as well—the first long-term cell culture of cardiomyocytes (cardiac muscle cells) in space. And then, of course, there was a whole series of molecular experiments—you probably heard about the genetic sequencing in space. It was fascinating to do this same kind of lab work that I would do on the ground, but to see what the effects were in space. There’s also a whole fleet of technologies that we were testing up there. We’re essentially establishing a molecular laboratory—not just for one experiment, but as a real capability for the space station. As a research geek, that’s one of the most exciting things you could do—build a laboratory in space.
What does a lab in space allow for?
Doing science in remote environments is an incredible challenge, but it’s where we can learn a lot. Sometimes there’s the question of “Why do these experiments in space?” or “Why do these experiments in the Congo?” Well, sometimes that’s the only place that you can answer these questions. I can’t simulate the micro-gravity or radiation environment of the space station—only in this one lab can you answer how those variables affect physiology or affect cellular and molecular behavior. Most of the time you’d like to do an experiment in a nice, calm laboratory, but there are times where you have to take the research other places. Disease outbreaks, micro-gravity research, these are remote environments. They’re logistically challenging, but that’s where we answer some very interesting and important questions.
Those answers can apply to diseases we have on the planet, as well as future exploration—how we’ll continue supporting humans in space, how do you go further and further with long-duration missions—Mars missions, for instance. Even common conditions like osteoporosis, there’s a pretty similar condition for those in orbit. Same with neurological changes, effects on the cardiovascular and immune system—the questions that we want to solve about human beings living in space for a long time, pretty much every single one of them is directly related to a physiological problem or a system we’re interested in studying on the ground. So you’re not really choosing “Do I help out human health and disease?” or “Do I think about exploration?” Truth is, we’re answering both questions.
Finally, I have to ask about perspective—do you have a new worldview now that you’ve seen our planet in such a different way?
Because you orbit so quickly and see whole continents, it certainly has changed my sense of geography. You get very familiar saying “Oh, hey! We’re coming up on the Placencia Peninsula right now; it’s so beautiful off the coast of Belize. Then we’ll go over to Europe and come around the top and down to India.” To see the whole planet—the scale of what your home is becomes really expanded. Honestly, it feels like the entire globe is your home.