Jessica Meir goes to extremes to advance science.
Right now Jessica Meir, PhD ’09, is 220 miles above Earth, traveling at 17,227 miles per hour, orbiting the globe every 90 minutes aboard the International Space Station (ISS). She saw 16 sunrises today, just as many sunsets, and in one eyeshot can view nearly a quarter of our planet, say, the horn of Africa, the boot of Italy and the aurora borealis above Russia all at once. Right now she may be talking to schoolchildren on a live NASA feed or capturing her mission on social media, or she may simply be sleeping—floating, of course—in crew quarters the size of a phone booth.
Depending on when you read this, right now she may be collecting medical readings on her crewmates, or herself, or on “extravehicular activity,” more commonly known as a spacewalk. When she’s wrapped up her tasks for the day, she may be taking a moment in the Station’s cupola, a dome-like observatory module providing an extraordinary panorama of Earth and the depths of space beyond. If you know where to look in the night sky, you might see her, or at least the tiny point of light that is the ISS—a bit smaller than a star, moving just about as fast as a plane silently across the sky. That’s where she is. She’s up there.
There was a time, not too long ago, when a scientist wouldn’t have had such a role. Space in the early days of exploration was more of a barrier to break, a place to be raced to. NASA sought trained pilots from the military to get us there. But as that race slowed and evolved, space became something to study, a new variable in human knowledge with the potential to yield exciting discoveries, from mapping the cosmos to studying how humans react to microgravity. With the establishment of the ISS in 1998, there came the opportunity for long-term studies beyond short-term shuttle missions, and space was solidly a scientific environment, albeit an extreme one—exactly the kind that Meir has made herself ready for.
Meir grew up in the small New England town of Caribou, Maine, deeply connected to nature. She credits her parents—her Israeli father and particularly her Swedish mother—for that connection, which put her on the path to science, starting with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Brown University in 1999. With sights set on space exploration, she attended the International Space University in France and thereafter supported human physiology experiments at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. In 2003, she came to Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego (SIO), eager to study marine biology with prominent professors Paul Ponganis and Jerry Kooyman, who became her degree advisors. “Not only are they at the top of their field and amazing scientists, they’re just really good people,” says Meir. “And for me, as a graduate student starting out, that made a huge difference because they treated me like a person and they also cared about me as a person. They weren’t just focused on science.”
Her research at Scripps concerned deep-diving mammals and birds, and the physiological qualities that allow them to live in some of the harshest conditions on Earth. This curiosity led her straight into those conditions herself, as she performed five research expeditions in Antarctica to study these animals, especially emperor penguins— the deepest diving birds on the planet.
The regally colored penguins are known to go as deep as 500 meters, or 1,640 feet. Meir studied the penguins’ diving heart rate, specifically their unique bradycardia, or slowing of the heart rate, a trait that allows them to stay underwater for long periods of time to catch more fish, travel under sheets of ice or escape predators.
“Emperor penguins can dive deeper and longer than any other bird, and yet they’re air breathers just like us. They can tolerate extremely low levels of oxygen,” says Meir. Her team researched the extent of this tolerance by documenting the penguin’s heart rate beat by beat. During one 18-minute dive, for instance, they recorded a period in which the bird’s heartbeat only six times per minute. Contrast that with a penguin’s heart rate recorded moments after surfacing, a whopping 256 beats per minute.
The ability to handle these extremes shows a remarkable tolerance for oxygen depletion, and understanding such ability could even translate to humans. “When humans experience heart attacks and strokes, they undergo low levels of oxygen,” says Meir. “Understanding how animals can tolerate these extremely low levels might help us figure out how to prevent human tissues from being damaged during low levels of oxygen.”
Beyond the scientific aptitude, her Antarctic research endeavors required an expeditionary spirit, the willingness to work hard with a good dose of grit and determination in adverse conditions. “You might have an experiment you’re ready to tackle,” she says, “but it will take a lot of mental fortitude just to get to the worksite. Some days you may be just shoveling snow or repairing something because a big storm came and you can’t do any science. But I really like extreme environments like that—places where fewer people have been, where conditions are a little bit more harsh, where you need to use your brain and your body to accomplish something.
“UC San Diego and Scripps are powerhouse institutions when it comes to research,” says Meir, “but I think Scripps in particular attracts this kind of explorer-type background and personality. When you’re here, you have to have an operational aptitude in addition to the scientific, because it’s what the projects require. That kind of challenge is really the epitome of the mental and physical combination that I find so fulfilling in my work.”
These experiences ultimately earned Meir a spot as one of the eight members of NASA’s 21st astronaut class in 2013. For the next two years, she was trained in the program’s five major areas: using the space suit in the neutral buoyancy lab; robotics training to use the Station’s mechanical arm; learning ISS systems in case onboard repairs are needed; learning the Russian language (all crew members must speak Russian and English); and space flight readiness training aboard a T-38, a two-seat supersonic jet trainer.
Additionally, Meir trained in scenarios on Earth that amplify the fortitude required to perform a space mission. For instance, you wouldn’t think a technical caving mission in Sardinia, Italy, would relate to space flight, but the strength it requires certainly does. “Sometimes we would be crawling through a hole, like a snake through these tiny holes, and then all of a sudden, you come out into this cathedral-like room with a 100-meter granite wall and start doing your experiments. It was just really extraordinary.”
You might not assume that research on penguins would translate to space, either, but one of the primary objectives of her current mission is to record how she and her fellow astronauts handle extreme conditions—the long-term physiological effects of microgravity on the human body. Where she once studied how animals function in frigid Antarctic temperatures, this time Meir and her fellow crew members are the test subjects. “I’ll be the one poked and prodded in the name of advancing science,” she jokes.
Meir and her colleagues are now conducting hundreds of experiments, research that will be crucial if NASA is to achieve its goal of landing the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024. Known as the Artemis program, it will serve as the next step toward a long-term goal of establishing a sustainable presence on the Moon and eventually sending humans to Mars. But the health and safety of astronauts is of utmost importance. “Not only do we need to bring astronauts home safely from the space station, but we need to get them to destinations that are even further, and then bring them home safely again,” says Meir.
Among the physiological data astronauts will be monitoring onboard the ISS is cardiovascular health. Recent evidence has shown that the walls of the carotid artery—the blood vessels in the neck that supply blood to the brain, neck and face— get thicker in space. So much so that a six-month mission in space is equivalent to about 20 years of aging on the ground. “We’ve also seen some vision problems in astronauts post-flight, including changes in the retinal layer. We’re not sure if it’s caused by the increase in pressure due to the fluid shift that we have in space, or what exactly is going on, but we’re looking more into that,” says Meir.
From the frozen Antarctic to the dark vacuum of space, Meir has gone to extremes in the name of science to contribute to a greater understanding of our world, our bodies and beyond. Yet even as she orbits Earth, it’s the constant pull of our blue planet below that reminds her of those back home, those who supported her throughout her journey, and who continue to watch with pride and admiration. “I wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for all the people along the way who helped me get to where I am,” she says. “I’ll never forget that, and it’s why I’m so excited to share my experience with everyone.”
Jessica Meir’s mission aboard the ISS will continue through spring 2020. Follow @astro_jessica on social media.