Q&A About Space Studies as a Field (Part 2)

A while back, I put out a call for questions via my Twitter (@neurostellar) and other social media to see if there were any questions about space studies, both as a field and as a degree program. If you’re here for the first time, you’re welcome to check out the first part of this Q&A here if you’re interested in gaining some context for all of this and/or if you’re interested in reading about my personal experience with my space studies (distance) graduate program.

The second batch of questions I received were a lot of fun to answer and cover the field of space studies more broadly, as well as the role that outer space plays in our culture. There may or may not be questions about aliens below. Here we go!

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Q&A About a Space Studies Graduate Program (Part 1)

The International Space Station over Earth. (Image Credit: STS-132 Crew, Expedition 23 Crew, NASA)

If you know me in person or via the internet, then you’ll know I caught the space bug a few years back. My curiosity couldn’t simply be satiated by watching NASA livestreams or trying to parse out complex space engineering articles – nay, I decided to take the leap into the world of outer space via academia. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to join a Master’s program in Space Studies through the University of North Dakota, and now a couple of years later, I’m happy to report that I’m a newly graduated space scientist.

Thanks to the university department’s distance program, I was able to complete nearly the entire degree remotely from my small apartment in Tokyo, Japan. The whole program was an intriguing experience, especially for someone like me – a biologist who was suddenly thrust into a world of aerospace engineers and NASA folks. Since I started my program around two years ago, a few people have asked me about my experience with the program and what “space studies” actually entails. So I decided to share the details of my journey here, either to satiate curiosities or to help inform prospective students interested in the field. I put out a recent call for questions via my Twitter (@neurostellar) and other social media and received so many questions that I’m actually splitting up this topic into two posts: 1) this first one will be about what it’s like to be in a space studies graduate program in general and 2) Q&A about the actual field of space studies.

Thank you for sending in all of your questions! At anytime, feel free to tweet at me if you want to chat more about this program outside of what’s discussed here or you have more questions. I’m more than happy to answer them.

Let’s get started, shall we?

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The Diversity of Humanity

Everyone you have ever known and have yet to meet is on that mysterious blue sphere. (Image credit: NASA, taken by the Apollo 8 crew in 1968).
Everyone you have ever known and have yet to meet is on that mysterious blue sphere. (Image credit: NASA, taken by the Apollo 8 crew in 1968).

When I first heard word that scientists were grouping together to advocate evidence-based decision making and promote the pursuit of truth, I felt a warm fire in my spirit. A flicker of hope in humanity. And as cliché as that might sound, I really did feel hopeful. Science has helped us reveal many of the wonders of our world, many of the beautiful and intricate reasons why it’s incredible to be alive and sentient in our little corner of the galaxy. I felt hopeful that science would also help us reveal that the world is a better place if we work together to bring safety, equality, and a respect for facts to the top of our list of priorities.

At this time in my life, however, I am no longer naive and disillusioned. I recognize that science has its problems. I’d like to paint my field as a flawless masterpiece, but I would be lying to you. Science is not an equal playing field, and it hasn’t been for a while. Sometimes we cling to the idea that science is a noble and pure pursuit, but unfortunately, our idealism does not align with our reality. Humans created society, and as such, the way we think and act is largely shaped by the societies we create. Science is no different. Humans created the infrastructure for scientific pursuit, from the philosophy of science to the policies that guide its funding and ethics. As such, science is a product of our society. This means science is political. Science is vulnerable. Holding an ideal of nobility may help better motivate one’s scientific goals or applications of knowledge, but sadly, science is not noble. Not in the way humans pursue it.

Have a conversation with anyone from a marginalized group and you’ll realize that not all bridges to scientific pursuit are created equal. Some of us belong to more than one marginalized group, which sometimes means you have to build your own bridges to get across. For example, consider the concept of double jeopardy, a term used to describe the challenges that women of color experience in fields like STEM environments. Women and people of color already face significant challenges in STEM fields, much less a woman who happens to also be a person of color. UC Hastings released a great report on this topic two years ago, and I further discussed the topic on an early episode of the Synapse Science Podcast.

It’s difficult for me to understand how we can get so excited about the grand diversity of plant & animal life here on Earth, yet we don’t make the effort to protect the diversity that exists within our own human species. Some people see diversity as a burden instead of a boon. We want to be unique little snowflakes, but we don’t want to respect or validate the uniqueness of other people. It doesn’t make sense. I understand how it could be overwhelming to learn about the diversity of our species if you start from scratch. We’ve been rapidly exploring the varieties in our race, gender, sexual orientation, neurodivergence, disabilities, and more. Diverse people have always existed, but it is more recently that the details of those diversity have been shared with more of the world.

Understanding these details doesn’t have to be overwhelming, though. Learning about these traits is like learning anything else – you pick a place to start…and you start. Maybe it’s a topic you’re the least informed about. Maybe it’s one that directly relates to someone you know, a family member or a colleague. Start listening to the voices of people who identify with these groups. Read articles written by these people. Think critically and if you react defensively to something, train yourself to pause and evaluate why you feel defensive, why you feel personally offended. But at the same time:

If a bunch of people who belong to a marginalized group are telling you that there is a problem in society with respect to their group….there’s a high probability they know what they’re talking about. We cannot afford to be lazy in our understanding of our own species, not when we have the energy to make well-narrated documentaries about how many fantastic species of frogs exist on our planet. Let’s be active in our pursuit to understand the diversity of humanity. And if you find yourself in a position of authority, power, and leadership, this is especially important. Listening to the voices of female scientists, for example, could help you better understand the struggles that we face in STEM fields. So could reading that UC Hastings report or looking up articles written by women in science about their experiences in the lab, at conferences, etc. It would answer this question for you:

It is easy to walk along the bridges that others have already built for you and ask the person in the river why they decided to abandon the idea of building their own bridge. But it is more helpful, more humane to help that person up onto your bridge, or to help them build a bridge alongside yours, or better yet, to widen your own bridge so that more people can walk along it.


tl;dr: Dear March on Science, the science community can “do better” by applying evidence-based thinking to its own microsociety. Explore the evidence for sexism in science, analyze it, and develop a solution to reduce it. It’s not easy. But that never stopped brilliant scientists from achieving the impossible before. Don’t let it stop you now.

Elemental Women of Science

One thing I love about the human species is its general fondness for having entire days of celebration devoted to one particular thing – whether that be pancakes, friendship, or sleep (my personal favorite; March 14th, mark your calendars). This week, we celebrate National Periodic Table Day, because we’re a species made up of gigantic nerds who get sentimental about chemical elements. In tribute, I wanted to share with you some of my favorite elements, all of which have been either been discovered by women or named after them in honor of their work and legacy.

Foundational Work in Chemistry

Madame Lavoisier, pictured here with her scientific collaborator and husband, Antoine Lavoisier. Portrait by Jacques-Louis David. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons).
Madame Lavoisier, pictured here with her scientific collaborator and husband, Antoine Lavoisier. Portrait by Jacques-Louis David. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons).

First off, it would be remiss of me to leave out at least one of the foundational scientists who laid the groundwork for modern chemistry as we know it. Among the most famous of these figures is Maria Anne Pierrette Paulze (later Madame Lavoisier), who has earned the title of the “Mother of Modern Chemistry”. Paulze worked in close collaboration with her scientific partner and husband, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, to help establish some of the foundations for the field of chemistry. I could go on for eons about Paulze and how her English-French translations, her sketching and engraving skills, and her mastery of chemistry and laboratory skills were essential to the development of 18th century chemistry. Scholars are now starting to realize that Lavoisier’s work, while formally uncredited to Paulze when published, was made possible thanks to her wits and work.

*Note: If you’re looking for a good read on Paulze, I found this article1 a delightful source of information. (There are versions out there that happily exist without a paywall.)

Radium, Polonium, & Curium

Marie Curie (Image credit: Nobel Prize.org)
Marie Curie (Image credit: Nobel Prize.org)

If there’s any place to start this list, it may as well be with the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win a Nobel twice, and the only person to win a Nobel in two different sciences.  If that wasn’t enough, she was also the first female professor at the University of Paris, as well as the discoverer of two elements on the periodic table: radium & polonium. Yes, it’s her, the one and only Maria Salomea Sklodowska (later known as Marie Sklodowska Curie), a Polish physicist and chemist who is widely known for her pioneering research alongside her collaborator and husband, Pierre Curie.

Despite the challenging access to education imposed on many women at the time, Sklodowska fought to actively pursue an education at the Flying University in Warsaw and later acquired scientific training in a chemical laboratory at the Museum of Industry and Agriculture near Warsaw’s Old Town. Once in France, she pursued her scientific education and began her research into the various magnetic properties of steels. Soon enough, she began pursuing ideas for her thesis research, through which she found herself studying the behavior and qualities of uranium rays. Her investigations led to a fundamental hypothesis suggesting that the observed radiation was originating from the atom itself, as opposed to complex molecular interactions. Her ideas also helped disprove the ancient idea that atoms were indivisible by nature. Together, both of the Curies not only established the foundations of a new field of science, but many of the scientists mentioned below were also colleagues or mentees of Marie Curie herself. Later, in 1944, when a group of scientists blasted Plutonium-239 with accelerated α-particles and managed to isolate a new element, they named it Curium in honor of the couple’s work on radioactivity.

Astatine

As the periodic table of elements started to assemble and grow, thanks to work by Dmitri Mendeleev and Niels Bohr, scientists began pursuing the discovery of what they called “eka-iodine” – an unknown element that would fit in the space right under iodine. Countless efforts to isolate and reproduce scientific findings, however, proved the element frustratingly elusive. A group of scientists2 at UC Berkeley attempted to synthetically create element 85 by bombarding bismuth-209 with α-particles using a particle accelerator. Their attempts resulted in an artificial radioactive isotope of element 85; however, the synthetic nature and questionable stability of the isotope made chemists reluctant to name it. A few years later in 1943, two Austrian physicists named Berta Karlik and Traude Cless-Bernert discovered element 85 naturally as a product of two decaying chains in the uranium series and consequently the actinium series. It was soon thereafter that the element was finally named astatine. Karlik received a multitude of awards over the course of her scientific career in recognition of her accomplishments, including the Haitinger Prize for Chemistry. Her other accomplishments included an appointment as Director of the Institute for Radium Research in Vienna, a full university professorship (the first woman in Austria to be so), and participation in UN-sponsored conferences regarding peaceful uses of atomic energy. She is also noted to have been a contemporary and scientific colleague of Madame Curie, who she met earlier in her career.

1950: Berta Karlik (left) pictured here with her colleague, Lise Meitner (right) (Image credit: Deutsches Historiches Museum, Berlin)
1950: Berta Karlik (left) pictured here with her colleague, Lise Meitner (right) (Image credit: Deutsches Historiches Museum, Berlin)

Protactinium & Meitnerium

For Lise Meitner, the discovery of an element on the periodic table was just one of many impressive accomplishments very early on in her scientific career. Ever since she was young, Meitner was an absolute math and science nerd, propelling these interests into her pursuit of a doctoral degree in physics at the University of Vienna (again, in spite of the limits on education that women faced at the time). A combination of fortunate opportunities and academic diligence guided her to the lecture hall of one Max Planck, in whose lab she found a place as a lab assistant alongside chemist Otto Hahn. In 1917, Meitner and Hahn collaboratively discovered the first long-lived isotope of protactinium, and as a result she was granted her own physics section at the Kaiser Wilhem Institute for Chemistry.

Soon after, she became the first female physics professor in Germany and consequently the head of the physics department, which is when she and Otto Hahn began their groundbreaking research into nuclear fission of heavy nuclei. Despite Meitner’s collaboration and other scientists’ nominations and support, it was actually her collaborator, Otto Hahn, who was solely awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for nuclear fission. Much of the scientific and general community have since disagreed with her erasure from the Prize and as such, many have also credited her in the discovery of fission and have granted her a number of posthumous honors. One such honor includes the official naming of chemical element 109 after her (meitnerium) in 1997. As pictured above, Meitner and Karlik were known to be close colleagues during their time, as well.

Rhenium

Ida Noddack standing in front of the X-ray spectrograph in her laboratory at the University of Freiburg (Image credit: University Archives, KU Leuven, Archive Walter and Ida Noddack-Tacke, nr. 51.)
Ida Noddack standing in front of the X-ray spectrograph in her laboratory at the University of Freiburg (Image credit: University Archives, KU Leuven, Archive Walter and Ida Noddack-Tacke, nr. 51.)

Interestingly enough, Meitner and Hahn’s work on nuclear fission was not entirely novel. Earlier before their experiments, German chemist & physicist Ida Tacke (later Ida Noddack) had already started contemplating scientific concepts that would lead to the exploration of nuclear fission in the 20th century. Her critical analyses of Enrico Fermi’s neutron bombardment experiments, which was published in her paper entitled “On Element 93”, suggested that:

“…it is conceivable that the nucleus breaks up into several large fragments, which would of course be isotopes of known elements but would not be neighbors of the irradiated element.”

While the paper was unfortunately ignored at the time, it is now largely recognized as one of the earliest mentions of the very idea of nuclear fission. In addition to this work, Ida and her collaborator (and later husband), Walter Noddack, had put great effort and time into isolating unknown elements 43 and 75. Historically, they were only able to isolate element 75 successfully and with reproducible results. The work involved processing a considerable amount of molybdenite and performing subsequent tests and experiments. Once confirmed, the isolated element was then named rhenium. Noddack was nominated three times for a Nobel Prize in Chemistry but unfortunately never won.

*Note: one article I ran across had the title “Ida, the element hunter?”3, which is possibly the most badass title for a chemist of that specialty.

Francium

Marguerite Perey (Image credit: Wikipedia)
Marguerite Perey (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Marguerite Catherine Perey began her scientific career at the young age of 19. She was a young French woman who was denied the opportunity to study medicine due to family troubles and financial hardship, and as such, she applied for scientific work at Marie Curie’s lab in her late teens. Once hired, she began work on isolating actinium from uranium ore, a process which led her to discover that her purified actinium was emitting large amounts of radiation. After experimenting on the purified actinium samples and running a number of subsequent tests, Perey soon realized she had discovered a brand new element. Naturally, she bestowed it with a name reminiscent of her home country, and thus the word “francium” was born. After her discovery, she pursued her PhD thanks to a swiftly awarded grant and soon after became the head of the Department of Nuclear Chemistry at the University of Strasbourg in 1949. There, she had already started to examine the biological effects of francium, hoping that it may yield some aid in cancer diagnoses. Unfortunately, she had been exposed to a great deal of radiation in her research, and passed away of cancer in 1975.

There is a phenomenal article in The New York Times from the great-great-niece of Perey, which I highly recommend reading. I feel it is one of the best narratives you can read about the incredible life and aspirations of such a foundational figure. Here’s an especially poignant snippet:

“There is a sense of grandeur in the idea that paying heavily is a means of advancing knowledge. But in truth, you can’t control what it is that you find — whether you’ve sacrificed your health for it, or simply years of your time.”

Elements 113, 115, 117, 118

Dawn Shaughnessy, PI of the Heavy Element Group at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (Image credit: Department of Energy)
Dawn Shaughnessy, PI of the Heavy Element Group at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (Image credit: Department of Energy)

And last but not least, we couldn’t part ways without mentioning the four most recent elements to be officially named and added to the periodic table: element 113 (nihonium), element 115 (moscovium), element 117 (tennessine), and element 118 (oganesson). The discoveries of these elements were made possible by successful international collaborations and diverse teams from the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (Dubna, Russia), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (USA), Vanderbilt University (USA), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (USA), and the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science (Japan). More information can be found on the IUPAC press release regarding the new name changes.

While I’m unfortunately not familiar with all the members of these teams, there is one scientist I’ve heard of from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: Dawn Shaughnessy. Shaughnessy is the PI of the Heavy Element Group there, which is part of six element discoveries now, in collaboration with many of the other labs mentioned above. Her scientific career includes an appointment as group leader for a recent Experimental Nuclear and Radiochemistry Group, a prestigious mentor award from the Department of Energy, and a PhD from UC Berkeley in nuclear chemistry. If you’d like to find out more about the work she and her group does, she participated in a Reddit AMA a year back talking about the new elements and the research behind their discoveries.


Footnotes:

  • [1] Eagle, C. T., & Sloan, J. (1998). Marie Anne Paulze Lavoisier: the mother of modern chemistry. The Chemical Educator, 3(5), 1-18.
  • [2] Corson, D. R.; MacKenzie, K. R.; Segrè, E. (1940). “Artificially Radioactive Element 85”. Physical Review. 58 (8): 672–678. doi:1103/PhysRev.58.672.
  • [3] Santos, G. M. (2014). A tale of oblivion: Ida Noddack and the ‘universal abundance’ of matter. Notes Rec., rsnr20140009.

More Resources:

Our Old Friend, The Mesentery

In the wake of our recovery from the bewildering circumstances of 2016, many of us awoke in the early January mornings to some astonishing medical news. News sites everywhere were reporting that a new human organ had been discovered: the mesentery. Yet some of the article headlines made it seem like the pesky little organ had been hiding away undetected until one fateful morning where we all suddenly woke up with a brand new organ, fresh from the stem cells below.

The reality is, we’ve known about the mesentery for quite some time, dating all the way back to Leonardo Da Vinci himself. Our mesentery has always been there. Watching. Waiting. With every move we make. With every breath we take. …Well, perhaps not so ominously.

What is the mesentery?

Simply put, the mesentery is a set of tissues that attaches and secures our intestines to the wall of our abdomen1. More specifically, the mesentery is the double fold in the lining of our abdominal cavity, more formally known as the peritoneum, and it is this fold that forms an attachment between the two parts of the body.

A figure from the recently published paper digitally depicts the mesentery with respect to the small and large intestines. (Coffey & O'Leary, 2016)
A figure from the recently published paper digitally depicts the mesentery with respect to the small and large intestines. (Coffey & O’Leary, 2016)

The earliest records we have of this anatomical structure dates back to Leonardo da Vinci’s research, where he noted the continuous structure of a set of tissues associated with the small bowel and colon1. Further medical research reached varying conclusions over whether these tissues were indeed continuous or not, but a recent scientific article published by scientists from the University Hospital Limerick in Ireland delineates the evidence for the continuity of the mesentery, as well as the classification that accompanies such a feature. The authors and scientists, J Calvin Coffey and D Peter O’Leary, claim that the mesentery’s continuity, among other anatomical characteristics, deems it worthy of a reclassification as an organ instead of just a collection of tissues. The change in title is not a mere battle of semantics, however, as the differences between an organ and a tissue lead to different approaches, understandings, and perspectives in biology and medicine. All in all, the scientists claim that the reclassification could ultimately support more targeted research and education pertaining to the mesentery and its related structures, allowing for better medical treatment and greater scientific understanding.

What is the difference between an organ and a tissue?

The mesentery had previously been considered a set of tissues; that is, a group of cells that are typically of the same variety (e.g. epithelial tissue or neural tissue) that work and communicate together. Its continuous and contained nature, however, are part of what led Coffey and O’Leary to propose its reclassification as an organ. Generally speaking, an organ is defined as a group of tissues that are connected, self-contained, and perform a specific function3. General scientific research found the associated lymphatic, neurological, vascular, and connective tissues to be continuous throughout, thereby suggesting that the mesentery indeed appears to be a connected and perhaps central organ structure after all1. Its classification into an organ system, however, remains unclear, and the authors suggest that it could very well play a key role in multiple organ systems. With this new classification also comes the challenge of identifying the functional unit of the mesentery, if one does exist, and if there is a particular cell type that is largely responsible for the mesentery’s overall function1.

How does this reclassification change things?

Coffey and O’Leary suggest that a better categorization of the mesentery could allow for better research and medical practices involving it and any associated structures. The continued development of better mesentery diagnostics, through radiology and endoscopy, could better identify the stages of abdominal diseases through minimal to non-invasive methods1. Such diagnostic methods could also lead to better medical research into the mesentery, which could benefit pharmacological advancements that may obviate the need for surgical intervention or at the very least, could grant us a better understanding of how drugs interact with the mesentery. Ultimately, the team of researchers claim that this reclassification has set the precedent for an entirely new field of science, just waiting to be…fleshed out.

“Up to now there was no such field as mesenteric science. Now we have established anatomy and the structure. The next step is the function. If you understand the function you can identify abnormal function, and then you have disease. Put them all together and you have the field of mesenteric science…the basis for a whole new area of science,” he [Coffey] said2.


Resources:

  1. Coffey, J. C., & O’Leary, D. P. (2016). The mesentery: structure, function, and role in disease. The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 1(3), 238-247.
  2. [Press Release] “Irish surgeon identifies emerging area of medical science” (2016). University of Limerick Wesbite.
  3. Foundational Model of Anatomy Database. Structural Informatics Group, University of Washington. http://xiphoid.biostr.washington.edu/fma/fmabrowser-hierarchy.html?fmaid=67498