The Science of Sustainability

Millie Hughes-Fulford: Scientist in Space

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This video and article, originally posted on July 26, 2011, were updated on Nov. 26, 2014.

pdf Millie Hughes-Fulford: Scientist in Space Educator Guide ( pdf ) A resource for using QUEST video in the classroom.

 

Millie Hughes-Fulford in her lab at the San Francisco VA Medical Center in March 2011.<br /> (Michael Goode/KQED)

Millie Hughes-Fulford in her lab at the San Francisco VA Medical Center in March 2011.
(Michael Goode/KQED)

When SpaceX sends its next spacecraft to resupply the International Space Station on Dec. 16, along with M&M’s and khaki pants for the six astronauts, the rocket will also carry some 40 experiments. Among them will be a cooler with several vials of human cells, sent up by University of California-San Francisco molecular biologist and former astronaut Millie Hughes-Fulford.

Hughes-Fulford hopes to figure out why the human immune system takes a beating in space. Her research could help astronauts stay healthy during the months or years it might take to reach Mars. Her findings could also help aging people here on Earth stay healthy.

“Our hope is that we can apply the new knowledge across the board to anyone who has an immune problem,” said Hughes-Fulford, whose lab is at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and who is employed by the Veterans Health Research Institute. The longtime Marin County resident recently moved to Hawaii.

Space is a useful place to study the human aging process, because in space the immune suppression process is sped up, said Camille Alleyne, assistant program scientist for the International Space Station (ISS).

In 1991, Millie Hughes-Fulford traveled to space on the Space Shuttle Columbia as a payload specialist responsible for carrying out experiments for other scientists. She was the first woman to travel into space as a working scientist. (Courtesy of NASA)

In 1991, Millie Hughes-Fulford traveled to space on the shuttle Columbia as a payload specialist responsible for carrying out experiments for other scientists. She was the first woman to travel into space as a working scientist. (Courtesy of NASA)

In Hughes-Fulford’s experiment, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, human immune cells will remain at the ISS for one month, exposed to microgravity – the technical term used to describe the lack of gravity experienced in space.  After 30 days, the cells will return to Earth on board the same SpaceX spacecraft.

In 1991, Hughes-Fulford was the first woman to travel to space as a working scientist, when she spent nine days on board the Space Shuttle Columbia during its first mission dedicated exclusively to the medical sciences.

During that mission, Hughes-Fulford conducted experiments for scientists from around the world, including one with rats that investigated why space travelers become sick. The study found that, in space, cells called T-cells, which regulate the entire immune system, don’t send out the signals they’re supposed to. As a result, space travelers can become sick.

“Now we believe it’s gravity that’s causing the changes, the T-cell needing gravity in order to function properly,” said Hughes-Fulford.

Tara Candelario held up a vial with human blood at Millie Hughes-Fulford’s lab at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, in March 2011. Candelario, who is still with the lab, is currently extracting immune cells from human blood to send up to the International Space Station on Dec. 16, 2014.<br /> (Michael Goode/KQED)

Tara Candelario held up a vial with human blood at Millie Hughes-Fulford’s lab at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, in March 2011. Candelario is currently extracting immune cells from human blood to send up to the International Space Station on Dec. 16, 2014. (Michael Goode/KQED)

With her new experiment, and another one that went up on SpaceX in April, Hughes-Fulford’s goal is to understand which specific genes malfunction in space and what causes them to fail.  The experiment will be one of the last things to be loaded onto the spacecraft, and one of the first to be unloaded once it docks with the ISS, said Alleyne. This is because the human cells need to be in a controlled temperature environment.

Other experiments traveling to the ISS in December include NASA’s Cloud Aerosol Transport System (CATS), a device that will use lasers to identify sea salt, carbon, water vapor and particulates in the atmosphere.  With CATS, scientists are trying to understand what’s happening in the Earth and atmosphere, to inform climate change models, said Alleyne.

The resupply mission will leave Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The medical animation in this video was produced by Nucleus Media, which holds the copyright.

You may also be interested in the QUEST documentary Silicon Valley Goes to Space.

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Category: Astronomy, Biology, Health, Television, Video

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Gabriela Quirós

About the Author ()

Gabriela Quirós is a TV Producer for KQED Science & Environment. She started her journalism career in 1993 as a newspaper reporter in Costa Rica, where she grew up. She won two national reporting awards there for series on C-sections and organic agriculture, and developed a life-long interest in health reporting. She moved to the Bay Area in 1996 to study documentary filmmaking at the University of California-Berkeley, where she received master’s degrees in journalism and Latin American studies. She joined KQED as a TV producer when QUEST started in 2006 and has covered everything from Alzheimer’s to bee die-offs to dark energy. She has shared two regional Emmys, and four of her stories have been nominated for the award as well. Independent from her work on QUEST, she produced and directed the hour-long documentary Beautiful Sin for PBS, about the surprising story of how Costa Rica became the only country in the world to outlaw in-vitro fertilization.
  • http://www.ucsf.edu Lisa Cisneros

    Hi, This is a great video. I would like permission to show this QUEST segment about UCSF scientist Millie Hughes-Fulford at an upcoming panel discussion about experiments in space as part of the Bay Area Science Festival.

    We would show it to a public audience in its entirety at a free event slated for Thursday, Nov. 3 at UCSF. Please let me know if I can obtain a DVD for this purpose.

    Sincerely,

    Lisa Cisneros
    Editor-in-Chief, Web Communications
    UCSF
    415.476.3256

    • admin

      Dear Lisa, We'll have our community relations representative get in touch with you!