Not-so-Final Frontier: What I’ve learned from space medicine.

Molly Henneberry

If you’d told me in Grade 11 that part of my university career would involve talking to astronauts about my science projects, I likely would have laughed and gone back to reading about astrobiology and the researchers who were investigating the field. I remember wishing I could even have a brush with one of these super-scientists who come up with the ideas we send to space, let alone the people we send up there to carry out these experiments. But, just a few short weeks ago, an e-mail I’ll never forget landed in my inbox – “Greetings from Moscow,” signed by Commander Chris Hadfield himself. Through this process so far, I’ve learned that what I’m capable of is less about my natural talents, and has everything to do with how much of myself I’m willing to invest in a project, learning outcome, or task.

I’ve been working on identifying a research bridge between bone loss in individuals who have experienced spinal cord injury (SCI), and bone loss in astronauts following prolonged spaceflight. What makes this project “Stretchy” started with Dr. Martin Ferguson-Pell. An important part of my undergrad research in other labs has been asking “why,” Martin has encouraged me to ask, “why not.” It turns out that you can have sound evidence and a logical plan while being wildly artistic; in fact, it’s probably the only way any real progress has ever been made. I called my literature review the “wordiest scavenger hunt ever”; instead of reading journal articles that gave me the exact answer I was looking for, suddenly I was hunting for clues in these two seemly separate populations weaving them into a logical reason that this project could result in real life solutions. Suddenly, mathematics that had always eluded me made sense. Of course the slope of bone loss is affected by mechanical forces, and can be plotted in SCI patients over time to predict bone loss in astronauts! However, if you asked me to do the same with just x’s and y’s, I’d have given up months ago. The passion that I have for this subject has turned into fuel for making connections with people like Cmdr. Hadfield, and has given me the confidence to pursue new skills with a purpose. I believe that this realization has changed me as a new generation scientist, and the way I serve the communities for whom I hope to create solutions.

Molly speaking with Commander Chris Hadfield on the phone

I never thought I’d be excited to learn math, or to learn computer coding, but I’ve had a revelation about problem solving. Instead of starting with my skills and finding what tools I already have in my belt to approach a question, I’ve begun to look at my “big picture” first; what do I want to achieve? What would be the ideal outcome for me in my career? I’m learning that it’s not so crazy to dream big first, and figure out how to get there after. The worst that can happen is that you fail, you get told no, or you’re wrong. Then, you get up, brush your ego off, and keep hunting for your answers. I believe that to continue creating solutions, those of us pursuing careers in science must hold onto the part of us that first ever asked “why,” and allow ourselves to be creative and fail sometimes. I plan to use these lessons to pursue a career as one of those scientists I read about, because I now believe I’m capable. It is this spark, this hunger for new knowledge and the confidence to both succeed and fail that I believe exists in those I look up to. As Anne McClain, another astronaut I admire said recently, “Science is organized curiosity. ”

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