A conversation from space with astronaut, Stanford alumna

At a Stanford Medicine event Sept. 29, audience members spoke with Kate Rubins, who was aboard the International Space Station.

- By Holly Alyssa MacCormick

David Relman moderates a Sept. 29 question-and-answer session with astronaut and Stanford alumna Kate Rubins, who is aboard the International Space Station.
Steve Castillo

“Hello, Houston? This is George.” George Mauro, the lead audio-video technician at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge, cupped a hand over his cellphone’s mic and whispered, “I’ve always wanted to say that.” 

Mauro was setting up a video feed  from the center’s Berg Hall to the International Space Station, via the Johnson Space Center in Houston, for a question-and-answer session with astronaut and Stanford alumna Kate Rubins, PhD, who was aboard the space station. 

Suddenly, two giant video screens came to life in the hall. On them, a small dot, indicating Rubins’ position in low Earth orbit, glided past Australia. The space station was traveling nearly five miles per second.

A little before 1:15 p.m. on Sept. 29, the Johnson Space Center patched the room through to the video feed, and Rubins’ smiling face, framed by a fan of blonde, gravity-defying hair, filled the two screens.

The packed lecture hall erupted in applause. Moderator David Relman, MD, a professor of medicine and of microbiology and immunology, beamed. He was Rubins’ thesis co-adviser when she was a PhD student at Stanford.

‘Greetings from Earth’

“Kate, this is David. It’s good to see you!” Relman said. “I have to say this — because how often do you get to say this? — greetings from Earth.”

Rubins laughed. “I have to say this, because I don’t get to say this often: Greetings from space.”

During the Q&A, a live video of Rubins was projected onto two screens in Berg Hall at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge.
Holly Alyssa MacCormick

“Kate spent a significant fraction of her graduate career in a spacesuit,” Relman quipped, referring to her studies of smallpox and Ebola, for which she at times wore a positive-pressure-supplied-air protective suit.

After receiving a PhD in cancer biology from Stanford in 2006, Rubins became a Whitehead Fellow at MIT. Then, in 2008, NASA issued a call for applications for the Astronaut Candidate 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 chose her from more than 3,500 applicants to be one of 14 members of NASA Astronaut Group 20.

As the Q&A session began, Rubins described what it was like to transition from being a viral disease researcher to an astronaut, saying, “Astronauts don’t specialize anymore. Scientists are trained to fly and pilots are trained to be scientists.”

 Rubins, already an experienced scientist, learned to fly a T-38 jet and was selected to be a flight engineer for the ISS Expedition 48-49. On July 6, when she launched into space aboard the Soyuz MS-01 with crewmates Anatoly Ivanishin of Russia and Takuya Onishi of Japan, she became the 60th woman in space. 

Postdoctoral scholar Andrew Hryckowian
speaks with Rubins.
Steve Castillo

On detecting life, colonizing Mars

“What do you think is the best proxy of life that we could search for?” asked Zinaida Good, a graduate student in immunology.

“Any instrument we send to another planet, or on crewed missions outside of lower Earth orbit, would definitely have a suite of tools to try to detect life,” Rubins said. This would likely include some way to detect antibodies and nucleic acids, she added.

“The thing is, we don’t exactly know what we are looking for. Nucleic acids off the Earth may be different than what we are looking for on the Earth,” Rubins said. “So, I think [we should] employ a variety of tools, basically everything in our arsenal … to look for life elsewhere.”

“What do you think are the biological challenges of colonization on Mars?” asked Gustavo Catao Alves, a PhD student in geophysics.

“I think we are driving toward living on Mars. The space station is an example of where we are taking our first steps towards that,” Rubins said. “We take our coffee in the morning and we turn it into tomorrow’s coffee, as we often say up here. We take every bit of water from the system and we recycle it. … We take water molecules, split them and make oxygen for us to breathe. We scrub the CO2 out of the environment. We are making our own atmosphere. … That, I think, is a proving ground for technology for sustaining life off the planet.”

Relman asked, “Looking back at graduate school, is there something you think helped prepare you for what you are doing now?”

Rubins replied, “Getting the chance to be at Stanford, to do work there, to train under you and Pat [Brown, MD, PhD, professor emeritus of biochemistry] and all of the associated mentors, friends and colleagues there, taught me to be a scientist. I put this to use every day.”

Rubins then addressed the students in the audience: “It’s pretty fun to be a scientist in space, but it’s also incredibly fun to be a scientist on Earth. I hope that some days when the experiments get a little grinding, you think about how incredibly lucky we all are to be able to observe the world around us.”

The event was made possible by the Dean’s Office at the School of Medicine; the Stanford Medicine Alumni Association; and NASA, in particular astronaut Christina Koch and her colleagues in the Astronaut Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

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