A Biologist’s Route to Mars

Ann-Sofie Schreurs, a NASA Ames researcher, has her sights set on “the ultimate destination”: Space.

Image: By Abby Tabor | Science Journalist at MyScienceWork

Ann-Sofie Schreurs discovered Space late. No worries, though: that was never going to stop her. By making the choices that felt right to her, she carved out a path leading to her post-doc in space biosciences at the NASA Ames Research Center. And tomorrow, perhaps, onward to Mars. In fact, she just spent two weeks there—or as close as it gets—getting a taste for a future human colony on the Red Planet. 

Two weeks ago, Ann-Sofie emerged from a capsule in the Utah desert, where she had thrown herself, body and mind, into the simulation of a human landing on Mars. For 14 days, she and her “crew” lived the dream (almost) of starting a colony on the Red Planet. And, yet, one of her biggest regrets in life is not having studied marine biology in college. Nothing to do with a preference for sea over space. What gets the young Belgian scientist is that she let other people discourage her. Since then, she’s taken advice with a grain of salt and, by the time her post-doc rolled around, she was able to say Now or never: I have to do space biology! And take the leap.

Dr. Ann-Sofie Schreurs, now a scientist in the Space Biosciences Division of the NASA Ames Research Center, proves that it’s never too late. The world of space studies and wannabe astronauts is full of diehards for whom space geekery has always been a way of life. Not so, for this biologist. “It wasn’t until my master’s, when I took a class on Life in space that I realized I had to do this. It hit me there and then. So, I started quite late.” No regrets, though: “I’m someone who needs to understand the basics, the mechanisms behind something. Also, when you’re more mature,” she says, “it’s easier to have faith in your decisions.”

Ann-Sofie’s choices have taken her seamlessly from cancer biology to a PhD studying the mechanisms of DNA repair to a research project that will prove vital if humanity is to have a future beyond this planet. Certain conditions very specific to space, like microgravity and space radiation, have serious effects on the body, including bone and muscle loss. In her work at NASA Ames, she is investigating ways to counter declining bone mass with diet or drugs. Although she can’t yet reveal what it is, her team is seeing very impressive results with one dietary approach. Next, she’ll try to understand how it works, DNA repair being one possible route. One aspect of her work that Dr. Schreurs finds fulfilling is that it can also be applied to a perfectly terrestrial health problem: osteoporosis.

Bone density declines in the conditions of Space.
(Image: NASA)

Leaving Earth

For NASA, the significance of work like Ann-Sofie’s lies in overcoming the health hurdles to sending humans into space for the long term – not just for rotations on the International Space Station, but for longer trips. To Mars, say. “NASA is doing a great job on this point,” she says. “Sometimes people doubt them in the face of competition from SpaceX and other private space companies. But NASA is happy to leave low Earth orbit activities to commercial companies, and let them figure out how to make it cheaper.” This way, NASA is free to focus on longer time scales and the bigger picture: How will we live in space? Can we reproduce in space? Dr. Schreurs feels very lucky to be a part of it.

A Mars-like landscape in the Utah desert.

Perhaps the best part of the path she’s taken is that, today, she feels in not too shabby of a position to apply to become an astronaut herself. At the last round of selection by the European Space Agency (ESA), Ann-Sofie was too young (the minimum age is 25), but in the meantime she has built up a CV that might interest the Astronaut Corps. They will need molecular biologists and scientists who can work with mice: check and check. They want people with life experience outside academics: scuba diving and skydiving, for instance (Check. Check.) A pilot’s license is appreciated; her lessons are already underway. ESA is also looking to recruit more women astronauts—an opportunity that will surely not go unnoticed by the Ann-Sofies of the world.

The women of Crew 149 at the Mars Desert Research Station

The Human Aspect 

Imagining humanity’s future colonization of space, she believes “the human aspect will be the limiting factor.” Living in such close, inescapable proximity, on freeze-dried, possibly insect-based food... The Mars simulation, she says, was very convincing and useful for understanding how an astronaut feels. They worked in space suits, moved in and out of the capsule through “pressurized” hatches—and faced emergencies. Although a computer program was ready to create random scenarios to test the team, it was never needed: Crew 149 at the Mars Desert Research Station really did lose all power and communications with Mission Control. An urgent EVA (extra-vehicular activity) was carried out to modify a rover as an emergency generator to charge personal devices, and power was restored. “That was really good for seeing how people respond in emergencies.”

Ann-Sofie’s crew had no trouble suspending disbelief and throwing themselves into the exercise. Despite their different backgrounds and roles on the mission, all share a strong personality that took the game seriously. On a real, months-long flight to Mars, maybe such characters would end up butting heads. But, for now, Ann-Sofie credits her own “very Germanic and organized” personality for getting her this far. “People tease me – ‘You need to be more spontaneous!’ – No! I need to get stuff done! I need to be motivated and efficient.” (Sometimes too efficient, her mother might say: Mom was disappointed when she didn’t wait to choose her wedding dress together.) “Adrenaline drives me, but sometimes I try to do too much,” she concedes. But, then, any time she has a bad day, the feeling doesn’t last long. One thought always comes to mind: “Forget it: You work at NASA!”

A view of the Mars simulation capsule that Ann-Sofie and crew called home

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