Friday, June 21, 2013

Dream come true: MGH researcher selected as NASA astronaut trainee


OUT OF THIS WOLRD: Meir experiences weightlessness during a ride in a KC-135A plane, nicknamed the “vomit comet,” while attending Brown University in 1999.


When Jessica Meir was 5 years old, she drew a picture of what she wanted to be when she grew up. Thirty years later, the PhD and assistant biologist in the MGH Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine recalled that crayon creation when discussing how her dream of becoming an astronaut may now become a reality.

“It’s quite a surreal experience,” the 35-year-old Meir says about the June 17 announcement that she was one of eight people selected to be NASA’s newest astronaut trainees. According to NASA, the 2013 astronaut candidate class will help the agency push the boundaries of exploration and travel to new destinations in the solar system. They will be some of the first to launch from U.S. soil on commercial American spacecraft since the retirement of the space shuttle. Meir will begin training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas in August.

“I’m very, very excited and thrilled to become part of the NASA team and to play a role in the NASA human spaceflight program,” Meir says. “Hopefully one day members of our class will be flying on international space station missions. And beyond that, NASA is preparing for asteroid missions and perhaps to Mars one day as well. It would be very exciting to play a role in any of that.”


Meir, a comparative physiologist, has spent much of her career studying animals that live in extreme environments, from the diving physiology of emperor penguins in Antarctica to birds in the Himalayas that migrate at altitudes where oxygen is very limited. “I think this research – and the critical-thinking skills that are involved and the operational skills I’ve acquired along the way – will carry over into the spaceflight environment, as well as with humans operating in other very extreme environments,” Meir says.

Since the initial astronaut class of 1959, NASA has selected and trained 330 astronauts. The 2013 astronaut candidate class comes from the second largest number of applications NASA has received – more than 6,000. Meir says she initially applied for the program in 2009 but was not chosen. “So I applied again and was lucky enough to make it to the final round again,” Meir says. “Actually getting the call and finding out that I was selected was still very surprising, with the numbers and chances being so small and with all of the amazing applicants that I met and interviewed with, I didn’t necessarily think that it would end up happening. It’s really exciting.”

 Meir says she is grateful for the support she has received from the MGH and her colleagues. “People are really, really excited, and I think this type of exploration plays a big role in a lot of people’s hearts,” Meir says. “I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to have incredible mentors throughout my career, both professionally and personally – including Warren Zapol, MD, former chief of the MGH Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine. Working with these individuals has really shaped me. These people are not only amazing top-notch scientists, but also wonderful, caring people who are really just a pleasure to work with and learn from. That definitely has had an invaluable impact on my life.” 

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