Free falling for science

Biologist Kate Rubins returns to the International Space Station.

On Wednesday, Kate Rubins celebrated her 42nd birthday by blasting off with two Russian colleagues for her second trip to the International Space Station (ISS).

She’s in low-earth orbit until April, circling the globe about every 90 minutes, running many experiments in biology and other scientific disciplines. And doing crew work on the huge 20-year-old spacecraft, which lost one of its main oxygen systems shortly after she arrived.

I met Rubins in 2007 at Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. She joined as a Whitehead Fellow, a rare opportunity for outstanding postdocs to immediately become principal investigators (PIs), given funding without faculty responsibilities for five years.

She was already a scientific superstar for her contributions to the first animal model of smallpox. She was not just brilliant and energetic but emotionally well-grounded and patient with non-scientists—not universal traits among PIs.

At Whitehead, Rubins quickly built a team to investigate vaccinia, the virus base for smallpox vaccines. She also continued collaborations on several extraordinarily dangerous viruses, including Ebola.

Work on such infections is performed in a handful of extremely specialized and zealously safeguarded Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) labs. At the time, Boston was debating Boston University’s plans to open the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, a BSL-4 lab now operating in the South End. Rubins took the time to explain to me why she thought such labs are safe.

Unlike other Whitehead PIs, she also worked in the field. In fact, she studied monkeypox (a close relative of smallpox) in a remote area of the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the most dangerous locations I could imagine. (See story on page 16 of this Whitehead magazine PDF.) “It’s amazing to discover the inner workings of this cousin of humankind’s deadliest plague, but also to be making some small impact on this remote corner of the globe,” she told me.

Her viral research stayed on a fast track, but in 2009 she decided to go for her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut. Unsurprisingly, NASA approved, and she began years of training.

Rocketing up to the ISS in 2016, Rubins mastered life in microgravity, performing experiments for dozens of research projects, biological and not. Most famously, she became the first human to do genetic sequencing in space. Another highlight was a study of how cardiovascular cells develop there, with preliminary results that are maybe worrisome for human spaceflight.

Additionally, like all ISS crew, she took on endless chores to keep the station running. One job perk: two spacewalks.

Among projects in her current six-month stint, she’ll follow up on the cardiovascular findings, using more advanced cell microscopy. Another main initiative is using sequencing to examine the ISS itself as a unique home for microorganisms. “The space station has been separate from Earth for 20 years,” as Rubins told CNN’s Ashley Strickland. “How is it different? The space station is its own biome with its own resources, with humans coming and going. We want to see what these closed environments do when they’ve been separate for a long time.”

Additionally, she has made a high-profile exercise of voting for the November election from space. (Actually, this will be far easier for her than for millions of other Texas residents whose votes the Republican governor tries to suppress.)

In this NASA video, Rubins brings out her sheer joy in pursuing science in space: “It’s an amazing lab and it’s incredibly fun.”

NASA photos from 2016, except the Soyuz spacecraft approaching the ISS on October 14, 2020.