Please tell us about yourself

It will take astronauts nine months to get to Mars using current technology, every month bringing with it a sure and steady loss of bone mass as osteoblasts, the cells that are supposed to lay down new bone deposits, slowly stop showing up for work. As a result, after touchdown, astronaut bones could break more easily, with the nearest hospital 249 million miles away. If humanity is to become a star-dwelling race, we have to first come to grips with the quiet treachery of our skeleton.

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To find out why, we need to look at the work NASA scientists have been doing on the physiological effects of microgravity, which happens to be the specialty of one of the most fascinating people we’ve yet to meet here at Illustrated Women in Science, biomedical engineer Dr. Mamta Patel Nagaraja

1.  Can you tell us a little about your background? Where you grew up, what education do you have, a summary of your resume, did you always want to do what you are doing now, when did you start to become interested in STEM, what internships/ volunteering . How did you end up in such an offbeat and unconventional career?

I grew up in a small town in west Texas where my parents ran a motel.  I went to school in a rough neighborhood and I often wonder how I made it out of there and onto this path of success.  I don’t necessarily think I was smarter than the other kids but I do think I had better guidance, both at home and in life.  I often credit my family and three particular teachers who helped me pave my path to college and then to NASA.  We all need mentors, and I fully believe in the power that just one person can have in making a big difference.  I have a bachelors in aerospace engineering from Texas A&M.  I also have a masters in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech and doctorate in biomedical engineering from Georgia Tech and Emory University. Throughout school, I co-op’d which basically means I would go to school for one semester and then go to work for the next semester.  It’s a great way to learn about what types of jobs are out there too and with NASA, I was nearly guaranteed a full time spot once I graduated.

I was heavily influenced by my environment growing up, like most people.  In the motel, my parents often fixed everything themselves.  I must have just naturally gravitated to that type of work because my dad always told me to tag along and help them out.  So I learned to jack hammer to find the sewer line, use a snake to unclog a drain, fix a toilet, or just mow the yard.  There were so many chances to do some hands on work and much of it required problem solving.  My mom was REALLY good at that too and my dad was very mechanical.  So I got to see both aspects in action, and long before I knew it was so important, I had my role models right in front of me.  My mom was very involved in traditional male work and my dad treated her like an equal.  He definitely set the bar high for how I expect all men to treat women

I’d say my interest began then and just bloomed.  My sister often brought home science experiments she learned in school and taught it to the younger kids, and she often encouraged us to ask questions and find the answers.  She would cut out newspaper articles when eclipses were visible and we would watch them together.  I dreamed of going into outer space as a young kid. I almost cannot recall when that was not my dream!  I remember when I saw Saturn and her rings with my own eyes through my first view of a telescope.  It was probably then that I fell in love with the sky.

2. What exactly IS your job? What do you do on a day to day basis?

My job has changed over the years as both my career and my skills have evolved.  I started out working in Mission Control in Houston, Texas where we monitor spaceflight.  It’s the job of the engineers in Mission Control to ensure that when something breaks, they fix it even if it is out in space! I also trained astronauts for their mission into space.  This means that I became a technical expert in a particular area and then taught them just what they needed to know to operate and live safely in space.  I also operated a science mission at the moon and ensured our science data made it back to Earth and over to colleagues who analyzed it.  Most recently, I was the lead mechanical engineer for designing a mass spectrometer meant to go to Venus.  It was challenging and exciting to have such a cool task.  Now, I manage contracts for NASA science and ensure that the science we do reaches the public in an interesting and relevant way.

There is no typical day!  But that’s the fun part too. At a NASA center like at NASA Johnson Space Center or NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center, most of my work was hands on.  That meant that on a given day, I was probably at my desk for a couple of hours trying to engineer a part for an instrument we were sending into space.  While doing that, I probably came up with some questions that I didn’t know the answer to.  So I would get up and walk over to a colleague’s desk.  He or she was likely an expert in electronics (which I am not!).  We would chat about my part and the problem I was having.  He or she may walk over to my computer and we would work together for an hour.  Then, later that day, I probably would talk to my supervisor and let her know the progress I made.  If I am lucky, I would attend a seminar by a Nobel prize winning scientist.  And if I am double lucky, I would get to talk to students at a local school.

At HQ, I am likely in important meetings for half of my day.  We likely are talking about the best way to communicate a major mission to the public.  What is the best strategy to get the information to the public?  What is the best way to say it so it’s not too technical but just technical enough to be accurate?  These are the types of questions I am thinking about in these meetings.  I probably will spend half an hour talking to a classroom via Skype and answer fun questions about space.  If I am lucky, I may even get to visit the White House or Congress because of my work.

3.  How does STEM relate to your job? How do you use the information you learned from your degree in your job?

For NASA, everything we do supports science, technology, and engineering.  And you know math is used throughout!  Not everyone at NASA is a rocket scientist though.  It takes public affairs officers and speech writers to be sure our leaders know what to say and how to say it.  It takes graphic artists to display our science in a cool and intriguing way.  We even have lawyers who keep us and the government out of trouble!  Of course then we do have engineers and scientists who are developing the proper computer code to be sure the systems on board a spacecraft do what they are supposed to do.  We also have to design trajectories and engines.  And all of these products have to be tested and analyzed.  And then often redesigned!  So much of what we do takes new technology that doesn’t already exist.  NASA also does more than space travel.  The first ‘A’ in NASA reminds us that we still do research in making aviation safe and better.  There is much effort in making commercial planes more efficient, and we are constantly learning how small changes in aircraft design can make big impacts.

Much of what you learn in school is used indirectly.  Some of it is used directly if you choose a job that is closely related to your major.  However, some of the most important skills we all use at NASA are problem solving and teamwork. These skills are taught in engineering programs and are critical to success.

Nagaraja was in a position to concentrate her various skills on a multi-disciplinary problem that involved her old love of space and space travel with her skills as a mechanical and biomedical engineer. It had been known since Millie Hughes-Fulford’s work in the mid Nineties that the slowing down of new bone growth had something to do with gravity’s impact on gene expression. Remember, it’s not enough to just have the genes that allow for new bone growth. They also need to be expressed, which is to say the instructions have to be copied down into mRNA and then put into action. Somehow, without gravity, the expression of the genes that lead to osteoblasts laying down new bone growth was being affected, meaning that the problem was more fundamental than we had thought.

The issue with studying the effects of microgravity on humans is, of course, that there aren’t many humans who live in microgravity.  Statistically speaking, the number of people who have lived any amount of time in space is miniscule, and the number who are currently living there positively dreams of minisculity. So, other ways have to be found to study how gravity influences gene expression. Nagaraja uses studies of cells held in simulated microgravity (a magnetic field can do the trick) to see how prolonged exposure to different levels of gravity impacts gene expression, and how different techniques might improve that expression.

So far, it looks like the answer might lie in including a vibrational element to the astronauts’ exercise regimen in space, since cells appear to respond to vibration similarly to how they respond to the force of gravity at the level of gene expression. Nagaraja worked on the benefits of whole body vibrational platforms with Dr. Clinton Rubin as a graduate student, and the results have been promising enough to merit consideration as a payload in a future NASA space mission

4. Have you faced any discrimination/ challenges being a woman in a stem field? If so, how did you deal with it? Do you have any advice for up and coming women in STEM? 

Not really.  There are two times where I look back and wonder if gender played a role, but it’s so difficult to know if the difficulty was due to gender or personality differences or politics or anything really!  But the bottom line is even if I ran up against some difficulty, I didn’t let it stop me.  In the first case, I simply ignored it.  I think he wanted to get a rise out of me and I remained calm, cool, and collected.  The situation never repeated.  In the second case, he was a senior leader so there was no way to get rid of him!  But, I eventually found a new position because I had the liberty to do so.  I wouldn’t have always had that option but it just so happened that my situation at the time allowed to me to switch and for my long term career growth, it was the best I could do.  Each situation is different but whatever one does, I wouldn’t let anyone get in my way!

Don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot do it.  Including yourself!  Ask questions, challenge yourself, and don’t give up on a class when it’s tough. And not all engineers are all-A students, but you should do your best in each course!  Not all engineers think math is fun or easy either☺.  And as a woman who just became a mom, you can have both.  Truly-you can!  There is a balance to being a parent and working.  I finally found that balance, and the trick for me was being comfortable with my supervisor.

5. What is the best and worst part of your job? What do you look forward to in your job on a day to day basis? What do you wish you could change?

Best: I would say the hands on aspect of engineering work.  I enjoy being in the lab testing hardware or figuring out how to fix something that is broken.  It makes my day go faster too!

Worst: Meetings☺  They can be boring with no hands on work!

Look forward to: Definitely the people.  We all love what we do and truly believe in our mission.  We can all agree that exploring space is important and necessary.  And on top of it, it’s cool!

Change: Sometimes the frustrating part of being in a government agency is the bureaucracy.  But, in the end, I chose this job even with the hurdles because I really believe in NASA’s mission to explore the unknown.

6. How do you balance your work and personal life? Any secrets or advice you’d like to share?

This one is tough.  Every company and every person has hurdles and limitations to work around.  My biggest advice is for you to learn about the options you have, no matter where you are.  And don’t ever hesitate to ask.  The worst is they say no.  Likely, they aren’t going to fire you so just ask!  You may be surprised.  Also, look around.  What is everyone else doing around you?  That can help you gauge the atmosphere in which you work.  Lastly, if your current company just isn’t fitting your work-life balance, don’t be afraid to make a change.  We often get caught up in not wanting to leave a secure job.  It’s safe and comfortable.  But your life balance is important too!

7. What do you define success as?

Being happy.  Honestly.  Most people with STEM degrees have a well paying job with great benefits.  We aren’t rich (most of us) but we are generally happy and comfortable.

8. What is one personality trait that you think is universally important for a successful career?

Being able to work on teams.  Even if you own your own business, you will have to work with others.  I cannot think of a single job where you don’t have to work with other people.  This means being able to tolerate personality differences and have a successful outcome despite hurdles.

9. What do you think is the best advice you’ve ever received ? What advice would you give your younger self if you had the chance? What’s one piece of advice you can pass on to us?

Best Advice: From the head of the Astronaut Selection Office…

Don’t do anything just to become an astronaut.  Do it because you want to.  If it happens to help you get to astronaut, great.  But at least you know you’ll be happy regardless.

My advice to my younger self and to YOU: It all works out.  Trust yourself.  And somehow, it all works out.