The Whitehead Institute at MIT welcomed NASA astronaut and former Whitehead Fellow Kathleen “Kate” Rubins on Sept. 12.
Rubins' visit began in the afternoon, when Whitehead Institute Director David Page interviewed her for Whitehead’s podcast, "Audiohelicase." After the interview, Rubins spoke with a select group of Whitehead postdocs and graduate students.
Later, she enthralled local students as she recounted her four-month 2016 trip to the International Space Station (ISS), her biomedical research in space, and her journey from scientist to astronaut. The audience of students, teachers, and parents from Cambridge and surrounding communities watched with rapt attention as Rubins narrated a video showing her preparations for and launch into space, her experiments — including the first DNA sequencing in space — her fiery return to Earth in a plasma-surrounded capsule, and her jarring landing on the Kazakh Steppe, in Kazakhstan.
Following the video, Rubins answered many probing questions from the attendees, including whether she hopes to go back into space. With a laugh, she answered that she would love to visit the space station again, but as she had just returned, she was most likely at the bottom of NASA’s list right now.
That evening, Rubins headlined Whitehead Connects, an initiative of the Whitehead Institute at MIT that brings notable biology and biotech leaders to campus for engaging public presentations. The event began in a packed Whitehead Auditorium with remarks and an introduction by Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research, the E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. In her role as vice president for research, Zuber oversees more than a dozen of MIT’s research institutes and laboratories, as well as MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, and is also responsible for research compliance, intellectual property, and projects with the federal government. In addition, Zuber has been chair of the National Science Board since 2016.
Zuber spoke about the current landscape of federal funding for science and the criticality of federal funds for keeping scientific discovery moving forward. She described how her own experiences with over half a dozen NASA planetary missions underscored for her how much there is yet to be discovered, and how work like Rubins’ — at the intersection of space exploration and the life sciences — is an endeavor of utmost importance. Zuber then welcomed Rubins back to the Institute.
Before a capacity crowd, Rubins detailed her experience as a NASA astronaut and her path from Whitehead to NASA. As a Whitehead Fellow from 2007 to 2009, Rubins and her lab were focused on understanding the viruses causing Ebola and Marburg virus diseases, as well as Lassa fever. Her work also included special projects with the U.S. Army that aimed to develop therapies for Ebola and Lassa fever.
Rubins was selected as one of 14 NASA astronaut candidates in 2009, and after extensive training was assigned to Expeditions 48 and 49 onboard the International Space Station. Last year, Rubins spent nearly four months aboard the ISS, from July to October. Among her many accomplishments, she logged over 12 hours of spacewalk time and became the first person to sequence DNA in space.
Rubins shared with the Whitehead Connects audience a video detailing her mission, including the trials of living and working in microgravity, some of the more than 275 scientific experiments done by the crew, as well as her work growing heart cells in a dish, doing quantitative, real-time PCR, and microbiome experiments.
The video was followed by an interactive question-and-answer period moderated by Richard Young, Whitehead member and professor of biology at MIT. The evening concluded with a reception welcoming Rubins back to Whitehead and honoring her extraordinary accomplishments.
For more information about Whitehead Connects and other upcoming events at the Whitehead Institute, please visit wi.mit.edu.