A 6th grade science teacher, a field trip to the Cosmosphere, lots of hard work, several advanced degrees, and a NASA internship has all been a influential part of Dr. Sarah Wallace’s journey. Dr. Sarah Wallace has always been in love with space, and through her work at NASA, she’s found her calling. As a microbiologist, Sarah serves as the principal investigator for the Biomolecule Sequencer, allowing DNA to be sequenced in space on board the International Space Station. Talking to Sarah is like talking to your best friend, if your best friend happens to be a super-smart, yet down-to-Earth NASA microbiologist!
Beth and Sarah energetically enjoy discussing:
- The Kansas Cosmosphere and how it fostered the joy and inspiration for Sarah to understand space
- How we are all just walking bacteria…
- What it’s like to see her experiments be flown on the International Space Station, including the first ever DNA sequencer in space!
- AND, having a space wedding. Not just a space-themed wedding, I mean, a serious space nerd let’s-take-this-all-the-way SPACE wedding. Short of actually having it IN space.
About Dr. Sarah: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FaEqVYw7O3g
Taken from adafruit.com: Dr. Sarah Wallace is currently is the NASA Microbiologist and Principal Investigator for the Genes in Space-3 Project aboard the International Space Station (ISS). She works at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Dr. Wallace conducts research to understand how the environment in space alters the behavior of microbes and runs her tests aboard the ISS. This will help us to one day identify microbes in-flight. The recent Biomolecule Sequencer (MinION) that Wallace worked on, showed that DNA sequencing in space is possible.
BONUS SHOW NOTES & QUOTES:
On being a female in microbiology: “I had a pretty even split of females and males in my graduate classes, and at my lab here at NASA, we have TONS of female scientists, and it’s really exciting! I have several female colleagues that started with me right out of their undergrad or Ph. D. programs and have blossomed into become these phenomenal scientists! I feel like things are really opening up for anyone who is qualified and passionate, and it’s no longer a stereotypical ‘man’s world’.
I got to meet with some of the women from the Apollo mission, and most of them were assistants. Now, females are running the divisions and the directorates, and females leading as subject matter experts in all disciplines. It’s really great to see how big that change has been since Apollo.
Sarah attended Wichita State and loved microbiology, and molecular biology. Determined to find a graduate program that had both, Sarah found the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. The NASA connection and fellowships in the life sciences through NASA allowed Sarah to conduct most of her research at the NASA Johnson Space Center for her Ph.D. dissertation.
“It’s been a rewarding path, steppingstones often presented themselves to me, AND, I worked REALLY hard to make that happen. I was laser focused to get to NASA.”
About Being a Part of the Team to Put the First DNA Sequencer on Station: “If you just stop and think about it, something that’s very complex on Earth, sequencing DNA, has become commonplace in space! We have DNA sequencing in space! We have been sequencing DNA on board ISS since 2016. To date, we’ve done about 30 sequencing runs with about 6 different astronauts. Why that’s important: it’s been not only an incredible achievement, and there are SO many applications… from my area we monitor the station (air and water microbes) and we have no way to do that unless we bring the samples back to Earth, which does not set us up very well as we try to move away from low-Earth orbit and not be dependent on sample return. My team developed a method where we could go all the way from sample to answer not only to fly the sequencer, but we developed all the preparation methods to take a swab of anything really and sequence the microbial DNA from that swab. The things we find are common and they are the same things we find in your room. ISS is incredibly clean.
About What’s Next: “I have colleagues who are interested in getting in the human health domain. We know humans are changing in response to spaceflight. The hows and whys and what’s really going on are not widely known, so this technology can be very powerful in helping us understand this better. Based on an astronaut’s genetic makeup, there could be a “eat this, do this kind of exercise” monitoring to understand if they are responding favorably or poorly to the recommendations (based on the sequencing) and really get into a precision medicine type approach. This (sequencing technology) is definitely something that I see moving into a doctor’s office for everyone’s benefit.
On DNA and RNA sequencing and epigenetics- “Yes, there’s absolutely ways that we ourselves are regulating what genes are turned on or off through these mechanisms, HOW that’s happening and to what responses are the types of questions that we are looking to answer right now.”
On What Happens When Girls Get to Meet Sarah (as a Doctor, as a Scientist, as a NASA researcher for Station): “It’s surreal.” Between all of the amazing opportunities I’ve had since we launched the sequencer in 2016 until now, I’ve had more people ask for my autograph and to take selfies with me.. it’s like, ‘what is happening? I’m just a nerd!’ It’s incredible and it makes me feel so good. NASA has a video series called, “What’s on Board?” and I was fortunate to talk about the DNA sequencer. There was a young girl in the audience interested in science journalism, and she came up to me after the program and said to me, ‘You are NOT what I expected a NASA scientist to be!’ It made me feel really good because obviously I connected with her.”
What’s On the Horizon: “I look forward to when we can address those opportunities with cutting edge technologies, making sure we’re making the environment safe for the crew, and then using these technologies to learn more about what happens to life in space. We are at the cusp of this really exciting time where we know things change, but we don’t really understand the hows and the whys and the next decade is really going to start to shine light into these answers, and I’m excited to see NASA using these technologies to understand what’s happening in space with cellular life.”
On International Space Station DNA Sequencing:
KIDS! Students! Check out Genes in Space- YOUR opportunity to fly an experiment in SPACE: https://www.genesinspace.org/
- If you’ve ever wondered how astronauts might survive a deep-space mission or how we might use biology to transform new worlds, Genes in Space is for you:
- Propose an experiment that utilizes molecular biology capabilities aboard the ISS, specifically polymerase chain reaction (PCR)
- Test your hypothesis in the ultimate lab: The International Space Station