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Developing a culture of communication at the NASA Astrobiology Institute


The NASA Astrobiology Institute - a fascinating place to work
Baruch Blumberg Physician
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Well, one of the big advantages, in retrospect, is I really didn't know much about astrobiology. Actually, I knew rather more than I thought I did because I, you know, I read Nature and Science fairly regularly, and I was always attracted to these stories because there was a lot of stuff in the press during those days. But I do… I knew that I didn't know as much as the people who had been working in the field so as a consequence I didn't have any concerns about listening to them, in effect, doing what they thought they should do. And also, I didn't have a bias towards any particular part of it. So the NASA Astrobiology… NASA Astrobiology Institute was a fascinating place. It had been, to my mind, you know, its organization had taken place prior to — the outlines of the organization — had taken place prior to my arrival, and I was expecting, my role, it was meant to be for, you know, a limited time, because I was in my mid-70s, I was going to, you know, put it on a kind of scientific direction they wanted it to be, and I took that message very clearly, that it was a basic science institution. There's always a big struggle at NASA. NASA's primarily an engineering operation. I have incredible respect for those engineers, it is amazing, the most complicated things humans have ever done, with incredible success, the level of success for really hazardous missions—I'm not talking about human hazardous, sadly, there are those as well, but, you know, you work ten years on a mission and it blows up on the… you know, before it takes off, or, you know, it gets into space and it doesn't do and it doesn't communicate. NASA has about an 85% success record on missions which is pretty good because, you know, if they just stayed doing safe stuff, they'd have 100%, but they're always, to my mind, moving forward and taking… and taking necessary risk. Again, you don't take risks with human missions, you know, well there's always some risk, obviously. So it's mostly… it's… it’s an engineering culture. So… but about 15% of the professional staff are scientists, only 15%, the rest are engineers and technicians but to my mind, and I think everybody else's mind, once you get up there, once you get those high platforms, you're going to do science, and, you know, people recognize that, but then if you get into an argument about who's going to get the money, the bottom line is, ‘Listen, if we don't get that missile up there, you're not going to see anything, right?’. (That satellite up there.) So there was that clash but… but actually it wasn't a big issue. It's become more so in recent years. So my directive was… was to… and I made it clear with Henry, but the person who… who finally hired me was the then administrator of NASA, Dan Goldin and Dan was very dynamic, you might say a colorful person in a lot of ways. I thought… I always thought he… he was a man with great vision, like Tim Talbot was a guy, you know, he and Tim were in the same class of vision. Well, when you have vision in space, we're talking about pretty big vision, you know. Looking back to the origins of the universe, you know, many of these things. There's a famous image, the… the Hubble Deep Field image; the director was allowed a certain amount of time on the… on the Hubble — the time on the Hubble was booked years in advance — and he… what he chose, the director of the Hubble, what… what he chose was to look in a kind of dark part of the sky and to take very long exposure, you know, so they could register this thing exactly, so, for I think about a week, you know, every revolution, they were taking… they were accumulating light. Well, the initial one, you can see back to about one and two or three million years from the Big Bang and the most recent one… the most recent, it's called the Ultra Deep Field, you can see back, you know, several hundred million years. Now, the physics is you can't see the origin. There's a kind of a shield against… against vision, much earlier, but when you're looking at that image, you're looking down a tunnel of time, a tunnel of distance and time, and those kind of… the stuff you see in the very early part are all these crazy kind of nebulae and so forth, and they're, you know, they're just forming. They're all young and odd colors and shapes and that light started off 14.2 billion years ago and you're looking down this tunnel.

[Q] That's amazing.

So, vision is... is big and also there's a big time dimension. We just launched… we — well, I can say we — a mission to Pluto in the outer... in the outer... there's a whole bunch of kind of small planetoids. Pluto's now considered a planetoid because they're in that ring which Pluto orbits. There are several other bodies that are... that are bigger. Okay, it’s going to take eight years to get there, after a very successful launch.

American research physician Baruch Blumberg (1925-2011) was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976 along with D Carleton Gajdusek for their work on the origins and spread of infectious viral diseases that led to the discovery of the hepatitis B virus. Blumberg’s work covered many areas including clinical research, epidemiology, virology, genetics and anthropology.

Listeners: Rebecca Blanchard

Dr Rebecca Blanchard is Director of Clinical Pharmacology at Merck & Co., Inc. in Upper Gwynedd, Pennsylvania. Her education includes a BSc in Pharmacy from Albany College of Pharmacy and a PhD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. While at Utah, she studied in the laboratories of Dr Raymond Galinsky and Dr Michael Franklin with an emphasis on drug metabolism pathways. After receiving her PhD, Dr Blanchard completed postdoctoral studies with Dr Richard Weinshilboum at the Mayo Clinic with a focus on human pharmacogenetics. While at Mayo, she cloned the human sulfotransferase gene SULT1A1 and identified and functionally characterized common genetic polymorphisms in the SULT1A1 gene. From 1998 to 2004 Dr Blanchard was an Assistant Professor at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. In 2005 she joined the Clinical Pharmacology Department at Merck & Co., Inc. where her work today continues in the early and late development of several novel drugs. At Merck, she has contributed as Clinical Pharmacology Representative on CGRP, Renin, Losartan, Lurasidone and TRPV1 programs and serves as chair of the TRPV1 development team. Dr Blanchard is also Co-chair of the Neurology Pharmacogenomics Working Group at Merck. Nationally, she has served the American Society of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics on the Strategic Task Force and the Board of Directors. Dr Blanchard has also served on NIH study sections, and several Foundation Scientific Advisory Boards.

Tags: astrobiology, space, risk, Hubble, light years

Duration: 6 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2007

Date story went live: 28 September 2009