Researcher in the Spotlight May 2016


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Julia Attias, Msc, BSc, is a PhD Researcher at the Centre of Human and Aerospace Physiological Sciences, King’s College London.

What is your research about?

I’m a PhD student at King’s College London researching into ways that will help to protect astronauts’ bodies in space. I research with a SkinSuit that has been designed to recreate gravity in order to help protect the health of astronauts when they go in to space. The SkinSuit may maintain the integrity of many physiological systems and processes, and it is my job to attempt an understanding of this. I am particularly interested in how the loading provided by the SkinSuit interacts with human movement and exercise, with emphasis on any changes it may incur to our energy expenditure or muscle activity. It’s also important that we understand this, in the hopeful eventuality that the SkinSuit is integrated with future space missions. It has already been integrated into International Space Station missions in 2015, and we hope for many more.

How did you come to be working in this field and was this something you always wanted to do? 

I have always been interested in extreme environmental physiology; that is, how the body functions in hostile environments. When I saw there was such a thing as an MSc in Space Physiology and Health, I jumped at the chance and pursued it in 2011-2012. During this time I started researching with the SkinSuit for my summer project. I then quickly realised how much I enjoyed doing research because it was the method by which to find out information that doesn’t currently exist. The project was (and still is) in collaboration with the European Space Agency, and thankfully the findings were of interest, and more research was warranted. I applied for funding for a PhD and two years later, I was fortunate enough to get awarded with a scholarship from the EPSRC, through King’s College London to continue researching with the SkinSuit and human movement. 

Up until university level, I actually wanted to be a TV presenter! After undertaking my BSc in sport science, I realised that I wanted a profession in physiology, and after my MSc, I realised I wanted a profession in space physiology/research. 

Why is your work important?

Plans for human space exploration on a far greater scale than what has been achieved before are on the agenda globally. Visits to Mars are expected within the next 20-30 years. In order to do so effectively, maintaining human function from lift off to landing is of utmost importance. The ideal recipe of countermeasures to tackle longstanding physiological de-conditioning associated with reduced gravity environments is yet to be determined. My work will hopefully go some way towards this, and if I can help even 0.0001%, I’ll be over the moon (no pun intended). 

Do you think your work can make a difference?

I really do believe so. The beauty of the research field I am in is the applicability of the findings to many other populations. Although I research with a countermeasure primarily designed for astronauts, populations such as those that are bed rested/immobilised for long periods of time, those that suffer from disuse atrophy, and those that have suffered from sustained injuries could all benefit from any positive research findings, owing to the analogies in physiological de-conditioning between these populations.

What does a typical day involve?

 A day in the life of me changes every day! It’s one of the things I like; every day is relatively unpredictable, though has its stable duties. I check emails continuously throughout the day as I work with international collaborators and we are all on different clocks. In addition, I will be working on whatever study I currently have running. So it may entail writing the ethics application, planning the study, testing subjects in the lab, analysing the data, or writing the results up and drawing some conclusions based on reading literature. Often I will create an abstract or presentation for a scientific conference. I have regular meetings with my supervisors/colleagues and peers and I also help to teach undergraduate physiology laboratory practicals, so based on the time of the year that could take up a chunk of my day too.

What do you enjoy most in your job?

Being a scientist is hugely beneficial to us all, as breakthroughs – whether about space, cancer, nutrition, exercise, plant biology, etc. – are found primarily through scientists working to tackle the world’s problems, and it feels great to be a part of that. It’s also hard not to enjoy meeting astronauts from time to time! 

What do enjoy the least?

Sometimes it can be disheartening when you didn’t find what you expected to find with your results, or similarly when you find something you didn’t expect to. Although on the flip side, I guess that’s what makes science science, and that’s what makes us as scientists curious to find out why that may have happened. After all, some scientific theories came through unexpected findings! It’s also not the most enthralling job in the world sitting in front of thousands of rows of numbers on an excel spreadsheet ready to analyse! But it’s all part and parcel of the job, and the end result of understanding your findings is always worth it.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I used to dance as a teenager, and performed twice on the BBC show Blue Peter. And of course, I have two badges to show for it!

What advice would you give to students/early career researchers?

Be curious. Don’t settle for knowing ‘that’ something happens; you need to want to know ‘why’ it happens. This curiosity will inadvertently cause you to be inquisitive, creative and determined. Don’t let the word ‘can’t’ live in your vocabulary and don’t take no for an answer if your gut tells you otherwise. I believe we can do anything we set our minds to, if we want it badly enough. Find something you feel passionate about – this will fill you with the motivation you need to work hard, be determined, and succeed.

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