If scientist Ashley Nemec-Bakk (HBSc'14/MSc'16/PhD'20) has her way, astronauts will be travelling to deep space during her lifetime.
This vast unexplored region extending from the dark side of the moon to the very edges of our solar system has always captured the human imagination.
"I'm fascinated by anything to do with space," Ashley says, "I love science fiction like Star Trek, Star Wars, and the Dr. Who series."
Ashley graduated from Lakehead with a PhD in Biology in 2020 and since then she's been a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Then, in July 2022, she realized her long-held dream of doing research with NASA when she was awarded one of just three postdoctoral fellowships from the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH).
"TRISH is a virtual institute that's partnered with the NASA Human Research Program," Ashley says. "Their goal is to fund new studies that will enable NASA to send astronauts to Mars, the Moon, and other deep-space expeditions."
Although she's part of TRISH's research team—a consortium made up of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—she is based at the University of Arkansas.
"Right now I'm looking at the health consequences of space travel, mainly on the cardiovascular system, to find ways to offset its negative effects on astronauts."
Once a month, she meets with her colleagues from TRISH and from NASA's Human Research Program to share their progress and exchange ideas.
From Lakehead to the Milky Way
In high school, Ashley was drawn to physics and math, but as an undergraduate student in applied molecular science at Lakehead, she became interested in how the human body functions. This prompted her to specialize in biology for her Master of Science and PhD, both of which she also completed at Lakehead.
The connection between NASA and her work as a biologist revolves around the study of radiation. Her graduate research, conducted at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, investigated the physical repercussions of radiation on humans.
"I wanted to see how low doses of radiation from CT scans affected pregnant women since the effects of radiation from medical tests still aren't known," Ashley says.
Her PhD research looked at the impact of radiation on fetuses and, while doing this research, Ashley's supervisor sent her to a radiation research conference.
"At the conference I was introduced to my current mentor, Dr. Marjan Boerma at the University of Arkansas, who has several NASA grants," Ashley says. "She hired me as a postdoctoral fellow with the University's Division of Radiation Health and Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences."
Not only Dr. Boerma was impressed by Ashley's capabilities. Last year, the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) flew Ashley to Athens, Greece, for their 44th scientific assembly and presented her with a COSPAR Outstanding Paper Award for Young Scientists. The award was given for a study called Mitigation of late cardiovascular effects of oxygen ion radiation by γ-tocotrienol in a mouse model. Ashley is the lead author of this article published in the Life Sciences in Space Research journal during her first post-doctorate with Dr. Boerma.
The Dangers of Deep Space
Astronauts are put through gruelling training to ensure that they're in peak physical condition, so we may not think of them as being susceptible to health issues. But space, and especially deep space, plays havoc with human health.
"The problem is that radiation in deep space is much higher than on Earth," Ashley says. "Astronauts lose bone density and mass from cosmic radiation. On the International Space Station, astronauts exercise two or three hours a day in an effort to retain their bone strength because exercise can slow down and reverse bone loss."
In addition, radiation alters cells, which can induce cancer, accelerate aging, and lead to cell death.
"Humans are adapted to living on Earth where we have gravity. In space, you're not putting any weight on your bones so the movement of blood in the body slows and your fluid shifts towards your head because there's no gravity. Also, different people will react in different ways to being in space. That's why it's crucial to do a lot of research before sending astronauts up there."
Can the humble flax seed help astronauts stay safe?
Other bodily systems besides the skeletal system are damaged by radiation, and exercise alone won't shield astronauts from it.
As a result, scientists like Ashley are seeking out solutions. In her case, she's turned her attention to the role that antioxidants can play in keeping humans strong. Her TRISH research project—The Use of Two New Ground-based Models of Deep Space Travel to Study the Role of Mitochondria and Oxidative Stress in Cardiovascular Effects—is experimenting with a natural compound derived from flax. To create the compound, the fats and fibre contained in flax seeds are removed. This work is building on the research Ashley began during master's degree and its' objective is to document the effects of radiation and microgravity on the form and function of the heart, major arteries, and vasculature of the eye in male and female mice to ascertain if the flax compound can neutralize these effects.
"I'm employing ground-based models (studies you can do on Earth) because we don't have a lot of humans going into space to gather data from," Ashley says. "These models will be used to develop countermeasures, such as drugs, that will keep astronauts safe when they travel far from Earth."
What she's discovered after exposing the cells to high rates of iron to induce oxidative stress in the cardiovascular system is that the flax compound is able to mitigate the stress.
"Our ultimate goal is to have the astronauts take the compound in capsule form because capsules are small and would be easy to store on the space shuttle."
Ashley herself would consider going on her own space adventure.
"If I had the opportunity, I'd go to the International Space Station because the Earth's magnetosphere still offers some protection from cosmic radiation."