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Greetings from space: A Q&A with astronaut and Stanford alumna Kate Rubins

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Hurtling through space at nearly five miles per second, astronaut and Stanford alumna Kate Rubins, PhD, peered at her home planet some 220 miles below and picked up a microphone.

Back on Earth, in a packed lecture hall in Stanford Medicine's Li Ka Shing Center last Thursday, an audience eagerly awaited an afternoon Q&A with Rubins, one of three astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station.

Soon Rubins' smiling face filled two video screens and moderator David Relman, MD, a professor of medicine and of microbiology & immunology and Rubins’ former thesis co-advisor (along with Pat Brown, MD, PhD, now CEO of Impossible Foods), kicked off the event.

Since this was no ordinary conversation, Relman explained how we'd talk with Rubins via the feed connecting the ISS to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas to Stanford Medicine.

"Here's the plan for the next 30 minutes while Kate travels about a third of the way around our planet," Relman said. "I'll provide a brief background of Kate's work and then I'll open this up to questions. Remember, we can see and hear Kate, but she can only hear you."

"Kate spent a significant fraction of her graduate career in a spacesuit," Relman began. "She studied smallpox and Ebola (which required the 'spacesuit') and developed the first model of smallpox."

After receiving a doctorate in cancer biology from Stanford in 2006, Kate became a Whitehead Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While at MIT (in 2008) NASA issued a call for applications for the astronaut program, and Rubins told Relman of her childhood dream to travel into space. "She asked if I would provide a letter of recommendation," Relman said. "It was one of the easiest letters I’ve ever written."

In 2009, NASA selected Rubins from thousands of applicants and she began training. "Scientists are trained to fly and pilots are trained to be scientists," Rubins said. On July 6, 2016, she became the 60th woman in space, and has conducted two spacewalks since then. Here is a sampling of Thursday's Q&A.

Relman: What are the most important questions in the life sciences that you and NASA seek to answer at ISS?

ISS has been orbiting Earth for [nearly] 16 years. When it was first launched it was clean. Then we put humans and all of their microbes in it. I think we are going to be able to look at that [DNA] in a new way with some of the sequencing technologies we’ve just demonstrated.

The second thing I’m incredibly fascinated by is fluids. I’m in freefall... that does fascinating things to fluids... All of biology is related to fluids so I think [investigating] what’s going on in everything from a microliter up to a human being is incredibly fascinating. We've just started to scratch the surface of this.

Question from the audience: What do you think are the biological challenges of colonization on Mars?

I think we are moving towards living on Mars. The Space Station is an example of one of our first steps towards that goal. We have environmental life support onboard that recycles 90 percent of our water. ... We take our coffee in the morning and we turn it into tomorrow’s coffee, as we often say up here. ... We do the same thing with air … we are making our own atmosphere up here. It's a giant experiment about how you can take a completely closed module, put humans in it and do all the things they need to survive.

Relman: Looking back at your days at Stanford and graduate school, is there something you think helped prepare you for what you are doing now?

Getting the chance to be at Stanford, to do work there, to train under you and Pat and all of the associated mentors, friends and colleagues there taught me to be a scientist. I put this to use every day. It’s pretty fun to be a scientist in space, but it’s also incredibly fun to be a scientist on earth.

“Thank you for everything," Relman said. "Signing off from Earth!”

Rubins grinned and flipped upside down saying, “I’m going to sign off upside down, because I can.”

Previously: NASA videos highlight using omics to study what happens to a body in space
Photo by Steve Castillo

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