Sara – Research scientist at NASA

Sara gives you an insight into her role at NASA where she is able to combine her interests in food science and space on a daily basis whilst still maintaining her family life at home.

What attracted you to this job?

I’ve had an interest in the space programme since I started school. I remember giving a “Hero” speech to my class and I dressed up as Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space. The summer before I started university to study Nutrition, I learned that NASA had a Nutritional Biochemistry Laboratory and I knew that is exactly where I wanted to be. I was mistakenly under the impression that only engineers could work at NASA, but that is simply not true! There are many disciplines in the life sciences.

What does your typical day involve?

My typical day involves data analysis, manuscript or proposal writing, corresponding with colleagues, helping to manage lab activities, providing internal reports for NASA, preparing for internal and external reviews, preparing for presentations and/or meetings, and helping with method development or troubleshooting in the lab. Not quite typical, but I also get to brief astronauts on nutrition issues for their upcoming missions, on experiments we’d like them to participate in, and on their results. I also sit in Mission Control when crews are collecting blood samples on the International Space Station in case questions or issues arise.

What gives you the most job satisfaction?

One of the most rewarding parts of the job is publishing our work and inspiring students to see the research side of the Nutrition field.

What do your friends and family think about your job?

They are very supportive of my job and are always eager to learn what new things we are doing.

Tell us more about your environment in terms of work-life balance

I have 2 small kids (and a husband) at home. It’s not an easy task to work full time and spend quality time with them at home. I admit that I worked longer hours – at nights and on weekends before having kids – but I know they actually help me balance my life more by working less. As a result I think I am more productive in all areas. The nature of science also allows some flexibility, so I can catch up with some things via laptop, and don’t need to be at my desk on a fixed schedule, this allows me to be there for my family and get the kids to their appointments, etc. Balance is the key – in all aspects of life.

How did you get to where you are today? (i.e. qualifications and career route)

I received a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from the University of Notre Dame, and then went to the University of Florida to complete a PhD in Nutritional Sciences. I finished a post-doctoral fellowship through the National Research Council in the Nutritional Biochemistry Laboratory at the NASA Johnson Space Center. After 1.5 years in that position, I was hired to work in the lab and have since been promoted to be the Deputy Manager for the lab.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of following your path?

Experiences are worth far more than anything you can learn in a book. Try to expose yourself to your field of interest by completing internships, volunteer work, etc. The only way you will know if you will like a particular field is to try it.

What kind of hobbies or extracurricular activities do you do to relax?

I enjoy spending time with my family. We enjoy kayaking, baking, gardening, and bike riding together.

Have there been any embarrassing moments?

So far, I can’t say there has been a particular moment where I have been embarrassed! I’m sure there have been instances – but honestly nothing memorable.