The next time you look up at the night sky, keep your eyes peeled for an unusually bright speck moving across the sky. Once every 90 minutes, the International Space Station makes another lap of the earth, hurtling through space at over 17,000 miles per hour, carrying with it astronauts from around the world. The astronauts live on board the space station for months at a time, conducting experiments that help researchers understand how terrestrial life responds to space travel. Back on Earth in Washington, D.C., UO alumna Ruth Siboni has a unique insight into the way these experiments are carried out.
Siboni, a 2015 Ph.D. recipient in molecular biology, is a Presidential Management Fellow (PMF) with the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research division of NASA. The PMF program matches graduate students with federal agencies like NASA to provide two-year internships focused on leadership and management of public policies and programs. Participants are offered a full government salary with benefits, and after the appointment participants are often hired on full time.
At NASA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., Siboni works to implement research policy, which dictates how research is carried out by its scientists. Siboni works with principal investigators—the lead researchers on any scientific study—to ensure that their team’s research is conducted in the way NASA requires, and that its methods are sound both scientifically and economically.
Siboni says she was drawn the Presidential Management Fellowship Program for the opportunity to work on the management side of research, which affords her the opportunity to work within a variety of scientific fields.
“I knew I wanted to do something policy-related,” she says. “I was really interested in what it means to make sure that research is implemented appropriately. It really broadens your experience to be at a managerial level, and it’s really great to see all types of sciences.”
One exciting opportunity she’d had so far as a Presidential Management Fellow has been working with GeneLab, a NASA-run program which aims to create an open-source genetic database of how terrestrial life responds to prolonged exposure to outer space. Taking advantage of the unique testing environment that the International Space Station provides, astronauts collect data on organic samples sent up from Earth in small metal boxes. Samples include cell lines, bacteria and fungi, plants, fruit flies, worms, fish and mice—systems routinely used in genetics research on Earth. The astronauts themselves are also an important source of data, as health metrics like eyesight health are measured and recorded to learn how the human body reacts to living in space. The vast amounts of raw data generated by the various experiments are made available to scientists all over the world via an open-science database. Anyone with internet access can view the massive amounts of data collected by simply visiting www.genelab.nasa.gov.
Traditionally, researchers have kept data private until publishing their results in scholarly journals. Lately though, a new trend called “open science” is gaining traction. Under this model, data is made free and openly available via the Internet to scientists and any member of the public who wishes to view it. By providing open data to scientists all over the world, NASA’s GeneLab believes the rate of discovery and innovation will be increased dramatically. NASA hopes that findings from GeneLab might also help to answer questions about life back on Earth, such as new insights into treating genetic diseases. Siboni says the opportunity to work at NASA has been an exciting opportunity as someone who loves the scientific process.
“I’ve always thought science is so fascinating because you get to ask questions about the natural world and then you get to test your questions,” Siboni says.