A bionanotechnologist’s hopeful moon shot


I went to elementary school with Kim, at least for two years. This project has made me realize that my social life must have started in Grade 5 when I moved to a new school, because there are literally no friends from earlier than this on my profile. I’m not sure if that’s interesting or not.

Anyway, Kim falls into the “smartest people I know” category. I helped her put together a package for the Canadian Space Agency last year when they were looking for new astronauts. I desperately hoped she would get in, because it would have been pretty awesome to know someone  in orbit.

How did the astronaut thing come about, anyway?
The astronaut thing — there’s kind of two sides to that story. When I finished my undergrad I had a degree in chemistry and a bachelor of education, so I thought I was going to be a teacher. I was back in Ottawa where I grew up, ready to start my job in September.
I was wandering around on Canada Day and happened to see Julie Payette speak in Major’s Hill Park about how she became an astronaut.
She said she finished her undergrad then decided to do a masters. I thought “I could do that.” She worked for a bit then decided to go back to do a PhD. I thought “I could do that.” A few years later, she answered an ad in the papers, calling for astronauts. I thought, “I could do that.”
And then it hit me. I COULD do that. It was the first time I ever thought I could do more than what I had planned on.
It didn’t change anything right away, mind you. I taught for two years before leaving teaching to go do a masters (which I turned in to a PhD), and even then I wasn’t thinking about becoming an astronaut. I was looking for different kinds of challenges.

So what did you study?
I finished my PhD in bionanotechnology, worked for a year in the states, moved back to a job in Ottawa, and a few months later, ads appeared from the Canadian Space Agency looking to recruit new astronauts. So of course I applied.
I can’t remember exactly now, but I think more than 5,000 people applied in the first step – an online questionnaire. I got past that one. They weeded it down to about half I think (or 3,000) who were asked to send in a resume.
I did that and was then asked to fill in another, more in-depth, online form. So I guess I made it past two screenings along with about 600-1000 other people.

Sadly, not Kim.

What was the astronaut screening like?
The online form was crazy. I know I don’t hold a candle to those who were eventually picked, but I had no idea they were looking for people who were already astronauts.
They asked questions like, “Have you ever experienced zero G?” “Do you know how to drive a rocket ship?”
Anyway, it was a little daunting. I knew then that I wasn’t going to the next round. But I was still glad I tried. I’m still a little bummed at times that I’ll never get that chance, but I’ll never be sorry that I passed up the chance to try.

What sort of research did you do in school?
It involved creating biocompatible nanoparticles (about 1000 would fit side-by-side in a millimetre) that could transport genes or drugs across the cell membrane into the cell. These could be used for gene therapy (replacing the activity of “defective” genes) or for targeted drug therapy.
During my studies I became less interested in the applications and more interested in the fate of the nanoparticles inside the cells. So I turned my focus there.

How crazy sci-fi can this get? Will little robots fix my spleen?
I don’t think there will be tiny robots fixing anything anytime soon. Gene therapy, which was once deemed the future of medicine has kind of fallen by the wayside. Mostly because people started realizing that there are a lot of inherent risks with it, and we don’t really understand all the workings of cells and bodies.
It’s amazing, really, that for as much as we think we as an advanced society know, we really still don’t know most of it. That fascinates me. And it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about cells or organisms or geology, the environment, weather – we just don’t know as much as we’re led to believe we do.

No need to fear this, says Kim.

So you’re ninja smart about science. So, what should we be afraid of? Killer bees? Firecanos? Acid rain? Global warming?
That’s an interesting question. What do I think we should really be afraid of? I am concerned about the environment, fresh water supplies, global warming. I am not worried about that large hadron collider, though.
I think there is an interesting dynamic at work between researchers and governments. Those that truly enjoy basic research do what they do because they are curious. They are not trained to think about the possible consequences, particularly negative ones, that might arise from how other people might exploit their discovery.
Governments also are reluctant to put limits on any new discoveries, particularly if it will make them lose money. Look at their reluctance to do anything about global warming that will cost money, or reduce revenues. It has nothing to do with good science, but everything to do with money.
So I guess my biggest worry is that something will be discovered that is incredible, that will then be exploited in some terrible way and the governments of the world will be too slow off the mark in controlling it or containing it.
Then again, I don’t really think governments should be controlling or directing research, either. It’s a tough position to be in – to be involved enough to limit any catastrophes may arise from it, but also to be removed enough so that basic curiosity-driven research can continue. I guess I don’t really know where the balance should be.


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