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A field trip to Devon Island


Getting the best out of the NASA Astrobiology Institute research teams
Baruch Blumberg Physician
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One of the best things I did with NASA was… I told — when I first accepted the job, there was a kind of press conference at NASA headquarters in Washington — and I said, look, now, you scientists, you wrote these applications, what, about a year-and-a-half, two years ago, and it's going to take you a few months to, you know, to get cracking and get everything going, and those were good applications because, you know, we approved them in a highly competitive environment, I don't expect you to do what you said you were going to do. So you go ahead and do what you think you should do now. If you want to write and tell me about it, it's okay. If you don't, you don't have to. If you need extra money, you know, if you're starting a new program that you haven't budgeted for… we had a kind of competition, actually, we had a fair amount of money so we awarded most of those who were competing, so if you want to start something new, we'll… we'll help you get cracking on that. That was the best thing I could have said, you know, because most of these grants… people, there's a kind of deceit, you know, there's a sort of cynicism, people write a grant for something they've already done and then they go ahead and do more or less what they want to but they… but they're constrained by the fact that they have to somehow fit in what they're reporting to what they said they were going to do. It's a terrible... I mean, I think it's a terrible situation. So I… it took them a year or two to realize I really meant it, but I did. Okay, we had, it's a little hard, well, we had about 700 to 800 people in 16 teams. And to say somebody was in a team, I told the principal investigator, I said, ‘You tell us who is in the team and that's what the team is’. So they included a lot of graduate students, undergraduates in some cases, and then… then a fair number of independent scientists. So I'd say altogether we estimated we had maybe 100, 150 principal, you know, co-investigators, that is people with their own programs, so senior guys, people who would be eligible for National Academy. We had 23 members of the National Academy of Science out of 150, let’s say. I... you know what I mean, that's like Caltech, you know, or… or Stanford or Harvard.

[Q] And you hadn't selected based on that?

Maybe. The selection was done by... I know I appointed a very high quality committee, so there was an exhaustive review process and then… and I wouldn’t say I entirely took their recommendations, but I'm saying 90%, and again, you know, they knew more about it than I did and I realized that. Then I finally had to present it to the Director of Science at the… at headquarters, and… because he had the budget. I always managed to cadge an extra million bucks or so. You know, I remember once we had… we had… we were looking for five new teams and there was one team that was really outstanding but they were ranked sixth. So we… and we only had enough money for, you know, for five, so I presented all six of them and I said, ‘There's no way we can leave this number six off’. So they said, ‘Okay’. So I… you know, I've learned a lot about how headquarters operates. A lot of it is... well, they listen to reason but somebody has to present it, you know. So that was, the organization itself was good, and then the other thing that I did is I visited, I think, all but one of the teams, which was a lot to do because they're spread all over, and I'd usually go to, like, they made it a real… for the most part, they made it a really formal thing. You know, people would present their documents, they had slide shows, and… and it was… it was an exhausting time because I was seeing all sorts of stuff that I'd never seen before, but totally stimulating. I mean I was on the — and also it was new things — I was on the edge of my mental capabilities most of the time. I was skirting on the edge of what I could encompass.

[Q] That's saying a lot, too.

Well, you know, it's wonderful when you're in your 70s, you know, to be stimulated that way. But, you know, in retrospect, my, you know, I'd been trained, my undergraduate degree is in physics and in math, I mentioned that early on, and I had a lot of engineering, we… in this small program that we ran, engineering was… we took courses with the engineers, so I had… I had some kind of appreciation for… for engineering issues, and I've always been interested in technology — not good at it myself, but, you know, fascinated by it. And I… and boy, did we have toys, you know… you know, NASA, you know, some of the equipment that's made, all, you know, hand-crafted essentially, and all particularly for this task, and with very novel engineering because you're operating in a totally demanding environment, different than — things like protection against radiation. For example, NASA tends to use old computers and some of the computers on the space ship and on the shuttle and the satellite are quite… well, we can't… we can't risk… NASA can't risk some using some kind of new program that nobody’s tested. You have to have space-tested stuff; it's got to be protected against radiation, against the space environment altogether. So, we, you know, you can't use the most advanced stuff, you have to use something that's been fully… fully tested.

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: NASA, National Academy of Science

Duration: 6 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2007

Date story went live: 28 September 2009