Four Days of Science: I Attended NASA’s Human Research Program Investigator’s Workshop in Galveston, Texas

Every year in January, NASA’s Human Research Program hosts its Investigator’s Workshop (or IWS for short). It’s a fascinating time filled with technical presentations and inter-mingling of cultures.

The Human Research Program does essentially what you’d expect: it’s a NASA program that studies how the human body reacts to living in space. It’s quite a large (but unknown) program that studies everything from how fluids in the body shift in microgravity, exercising and nutrition, spacecraft design, isolation and confinement on an astronaut’s mental health, space radiation impacts on the body, and so much more. So, every year, the program gathers all of it’s researchers for one four-day-long conference where the researchers present the findings of their research from the previous year. 

IWS is typically held in Galveston, Texas, at the convention center in late January. Unfortunately, it’s not open to the public and if you were to try to get in, the cost for admission is expensive. As someone whose now been to one of these conferences, here’s my insider’s take on it.

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It’s a full four days of nearly back-to-back technical presentations. I work in public communications, so I’m not a technical person and events like this often overwhelm me with knowledge that goes right over my head. However, it’s my job to take the technical science, understand it, and then break it down for public consumption. It’s a challenge and the main reason why I love science communications.

The first day of the conference is a lot of introductions and welcomes. Researchers from all around the country and the world come to present their research, so it’s just as overwhelming for them as it is for you. After introductions were the breakout sessions. Each session lasts about 1.5 hours and there are many sessions to chose from that all revolve around one particular topic, like analog missions, space radiation, or medical *stuff*. On the first day, I attended a lecture about space radiation that was interesting and a little over my head. Later that day, my science communications team brought in a speaker on the first day to teach the researchers how to best communicate their science, so of course I had to attend that session. It was an interesting presentation that had more people in attendance than I was expecting, which was good.

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One of the space radiation lectures.

The second day, I knew what to expect so it wasn’t as overwhelming. For the first few days, my coworkers and I brought our lunches from home (to save some money and time). After the welcome and a few plenary lectures, it was lunch time and one of my coworkers and I went on a walk outside. Since IWS is held in Galveston, the convention center is right across the street from the beach, so it was nice to get outside and walk along the beach (even though it was quite windy and cold outside).

Afterwards, I went to a session on the SIRIUS analog mission in Russia, where researchers from both America and Russia presented their science on things like mental health, isolation, team performance, etc. And after that, I went to a more technical lecture where researchers presented on fluid shifts in space, how the eye and vision changes in space, and both of their impacts on long-duration missions. I had previous experience in communicating this research, so I actually understood what the scientists were discussing and I was so excited.

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One of the breakout sessions on the SIRIUS analog missions. This particular lecture was on team performance in long-duration missions.

The third day brought an early morning plenary on how, back in the 1960’s, scientists used deaf individuals to study the vestibular system (inner ear that controls your balance and perception). One of the deaf individuals who participated in the study told a story about how one time, he was put into a centrifuge that spun him around and he didn’t get sick at all; he later talked to astronaut and future Senator John Glenn about the centrifuge and apparently Glenn got so sick from the centrifuge. That talk was probably my favorite because I loved the history and stories, but also the science: I have never thought about how deaf people have altered vestibular systems. They don’t usually won’t get sea sick or motion sickness, and they have better balance. Fascinating, right?

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Panel of two deaf individuals (second and third from left) with their lead scientists (second and third from right).

A session later that day discussed food and nutrition in space. Researchers talked about vitamins, the best storage containers for food, and my favorite: growing plants in space. On the International Space Station currently, astronauts work on the VEG experiment, where they grow vegetables in a container. In particular, they are growing mustard greens and grew leafy greens and flowers in the past. I can’t reveal what’s coming next, but it’s exciting!

By the fourth and final day, I was completely exhausted. My team and I had been working 10 hour days, waking up super early to meet and get to the convention center, and then staying late and getting home even later. But, it was the final day and I was happy. It’s nice to get out of the office and learn about the incredible research that our scientists conduct.

The morning started straight into the breakout sessions, where I attended a session where post-docs discussed their research and later on how isolation and confinement impacts the human psyche. That second session was really interesting because it discussed how reaction times of astronauts change while in space and how people were interacting with on another on long-duration analog missions in Antarctica by using a type of Smart watch.

For lunch, my team and I went to this popular place called the Mosquito Cafe and it was really delicious. I got a warm pasta and we later went to a bakery across the street, where I got a chocolate-covered macaroon.

After lunch, I attended this really interesting session on spacecraft design. It discussed how XR media (like VR, AR, HR [hybrid reality] and PR [physical reality]) can enhance a habitat, along with having common areas for the crew to hang out. It was really intriguing, but I was excited for the last lecture of the entire conference: a Q/A session with Astronaut and Dr. Serena Aunon. She’s a very smart physician who has stayed on the International Space Station and volunteers at hospitals. Serena talked about all of her science in space, along with funny stories about how the crew played with their food in space and fixing the toilet on space station (it tends to break a lot). I love listening to astronauts tell stories about their adventures in space, so I’m very glad that Serena hosted that Q/A session.

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Astronaut Dr. Serena Aunon on the right.

And finally, the conference that I had been looking forward to for months, was over. It’s taken me several days to recuperate and catch up on my sleep, but I love going to conferences. This was one of the best parts of my job and I hope that this article helped you learn a little bit about IWS and NASA’s Human Research Program.

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Thank you for reading! Have you ever been to a scientific lecture before? Do you enjoy them? Let me know in the comments below and like this post if you want more like it!

Xoxo’s

Emmalee

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