Stars align for young Irish scientist at International Space University

29 Jan 2018

Niamh Higgins’ ‘selfie of stratospheric proportions’ thanks to a high-altitude balloon mission. Image: International Space University

For Niamh Higgins, science is a passport to the world and beyond. Dr Claire O’Connell found out more about her time at the International Space University in Cork.

How could we make medicines in space? Could we use some of our gut bugs to help? And what would happen, biologically, if someone was pregnant on the International Space Station?

Those and many other questions kept Irish scientist Niamh Higgins on her toes at the International Space University (ISU) last summer.

The nine-week course immerses participants in ‘all things space’, including science, engineering, human performance, policy, ethics, law and even entrepreneurship.

Higgins couldn’t believe her luck when she got to take part in the course, finding herself in the right place at the right time with the right attitude.

“I was totally new to space, but I had gone to a lot of hackathons when I was an undergrad in Dublin City University (DCU), and when I saw that NASA was holding Space Apps Challenge Dublin [in 2017], I went along,” said Higgins.

While there, she heard about the International Space University, which runs a space studies programme in a different place each year – and, in 2017, Cork was the chosen spot. Higgins applied and to her delight got a scholarship from the European Space Agency to attend the programme, hosted by Cork Institute of Technology.

Exchange of ideas

“I really fell into it,” she said. “But I’m so glad the stars aligned, because the course was the best thing I ever did.”

Higgins was one of around 120 participants who got to hear lectures from space experts and to learn practical skills in astronaut training and flight medicine, and her project team developed The Galactic Guide to Space Entrepreneurship, a handbook dedicated to helping aspiring space entrepreneurs, and launched their own start-up.

There were plenty of other memorable moments for Higgins, too, including hiking to see a meteor shower at night and even teaching some of the visiting astronauts the art of wielding a hurl.

“I’m big into camogie and I brought hurls and a bagful of sliotars with me to Cork,” she recalled. “So we went outside, and I was showing astronauts Jeff Hoffman and Bob Thirsk how to play. It was good craic and I felt like I was giving them a bit of knowledge back after they had taught us about orbital mechanics.”

Niamh Áine Higgins (centre) with her fellow Human Performance in Space team following a high-stress day of gruelling physical astronaut training at the National Maritime College of Ireland

Niamh Higgins (centre) with her fellow Human Performance in Space team following a high-stress day of gruelling physical astronaut training at the National Maritime College of Ireland. Image: International Space University

Synbio in space

As well as camogie, Higgins is a successful equestrian athlete. This, combined with her studies on genetics and cell biology in DCU, meant she was keen to learn more about human performance in space.

As part of her work at ISU, Higgins and her American classmate Michael Johansen, an aerospace engineer at NASA, tackled how synthetic biology could be harnessed for improving human performance in space.

“We reasoned that a biologist and an engineer would be the dream team combination for a bioengineering project,” she said. “We looked at lots of possible ideas for [synthetic biology], including making drugs in space or teleporting chemicals, sending a genetic code to be downloaded in a space station, or maybe even using malleable organisms like the microbes in our guts, which we transport into space anyway.”

The diversity of backgrounds among participants led to interesting group discussions along the way. “We were debating biology, and what would happen during a pregnancy in space, but then the engineers pointed out that first we needed to develop equipment to bring any resulting baby back,” said Higgins.

Passport to the world

Since finishing the programme at ISU, Higgins has gone on to work at the Fraunhofer Project Centre for Embedded Bioanalytical Systems at DCU. Also, with the full support of DCU, she has just moved to Copenhagen, Denmark, to work with Nordic BioScience on a year-long Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship with BonePain, a European project that looks at pain-related biomarkers in osteoarthritis.

“Science is really a passport to the world,” she said. “And I find the creativity and problem-solving aspects mean you get to look at new and different things all the time.”

As for ISU, Higgins encourages anyone who has an interest in space to give it a go.

“We had people on our course from so many different backgrounds, from space newbies like me to established professionals in the industry,” she said. “The SSP goes to a new country or city every summer, in 2018 it will be The Netherlands and the deadline for much of the scholarship funding is 31 January so apply as soon as possible.”

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Updated Monday, 29 January at 10.39am: This article has been updated to correct the name of the interviewee to simply Niamh Higgins and to credit International Space University for the photo of Higgins with the Human Performance in Space team.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication