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Images released reveal how the black hole, some 55 million light-years away, appears in polarized light.Learn about the Event Horizon's latest discovery
On microbes and Mars
Gigantic cavity sheds new light on how stars form
Early Earth may have been a water world
‘Genetics in Space’
Ting Wu, Harvard Medical School professor of genetics, talks about ways scientists are striving to optimize astronauts’ physical and mental health—and anticipating the biomedical challenges ahead as humankind considers long-term space travel.
Genetics in Space
Improving human health on and off the Earth’s surface
Interviewers: Stephanie Dutchen, Jake Miller
STEPHANIE DUTCHEN: Hello, and welcome to the February 2016 Harvard Medical
Labcast. This podcast is brought to you by Harvard Medical School’s Office of
Communications in Boston. I’m Stephanie Dutchen. Our regular co-host, David Cameron, has left us for a new job at Harvard. So I have roped my colleague Jake Miller into co-hosting instead. Thanks, Jake.
JAKE MILLER: You’re welcome.
DUTCHEN: We miss David, but we do have a terrific topic for today’s conversation.
HMS Professor Ting Wu spoke with me about genetics research and space travel.
MILLER: You know, Joni Mitchell and Neil deGrasse Tyson like to say they we’re made of stardust, but it’s a long way from being made of elements that were furnaced inside of stars to packing up and leaving earth.
DUTCHEN: True. And I, perhaps like you and like them, am such a geek about space travel, now and in the imagined future. So you will have to forgive my enthusiasm during the conversation. But it turns out that many scientists are excited, too, about exploring how genetics can improve human life beyond Earth. HMS just this month launched a consortium for space genetics that you can learn about on our website.
And Ting talks about work going on in her lab, in the genetics department and across the
country, on topics ranging from protection against cosmic radiation damage, to how
people can stay physically and mentally healthy on trips that might last 20 years or even
MILLER: Far out, man. That’s one cosmic trip.
DUTCHEN: All right. Let’s go to the interview.
DUTCHEN: Thank you for coming to talk with us today.
TING WU: It’s my pleasure.
DUTCHEN: So you actually are the one who suggested this topic. And I would love to know why. What attracted you to thinking about genetics as it applies to space and space travel?
WU: I think, like many people, I’ve always been interested in space. I remember when my father took me to the ocean, and I could see the curvature of the Earth. I suddenly felt a little claustrophobic. I could see that the Earth was small.
But more recently, I think what brought me to this topic very seriously is that there are
astronauts who go into space and come back with serious health issues. Or they have serious health issues in space. We are at a medical school, and our job is to address ailments for the human species, regardless of how they became ill. And so we need to
take care of our astronauts. There have been over 500 people who have spent a significant
amount of time in space. And we need to start thinking about that issue.
The other piece is that, as you know, I run the Personal Genetics Education Project. And we spend a lot of time thinking about where personal genetics is going and whether our communities are prepared for the decisions that they will need to make, the choices that they’ll have for their life and their work and their play. And one interesting intersection is the application of genetics, genetic technology, genetic information, for living, working and playing in space.
DUTCHEN: So where does genetics intersect with space travel, now or in the science fiction theoretical future?
WU: Space, we’ll start with now.
WU: Then we can get to the science fiction later.
So I think the intersection is just beginning. Well, actually, of course, it’s 100 percent
intersected, because when human beings go into space, they bring their genomes with them. And the way they behave, the way they respond to the stresses of space, depends a lot on their genome.
I think, as with any job on Earth, the hope is that information about a person’s genetics can help enhance their ability to do their job, enjoy their job and enjoy their life. So part of it is using the genetics to help prepare an astronaut to know how they’re going to respond to the stresses in space and to best prepare themselves when they come back
from space to recover as efficiently and effectively as possible.
For example, it’s well known that long-term stays in space lead to bone loss. Many astronauts suffer ocular problems. And there is no way currently that an astronaut can avoid the increase in cosmic radiation and therefore damage to their body, especially their
genome. So understanding what the genetic capacity of an individual is to, for example, repair damaged chromosomes will help that astronaut understand what vulnerabilities he or she may have.
DUTCHEN: So when you shoot somebody up in a spaceship, they don’t have the protection of Earth’s atmosphere anymore, right? So they’re much more exposed to this bombardment of cosmic radiation, and that can’t be good for their DNA. If I remember correctly, that’s something that you’re studying here in your lab.
WU: Yes. So actually, many labs study the process of DNA damage and DNA repair. In fact, beautiful studies have revealed the pathway of genes that get turned on. And some of them get turned off. These genes make products that detect damage and then enable that damage to be repaired, hopefully perfectly, but sometimes a little imperfectly. The better we can change that balance towards the perfect, the better we are. And that is why much work has been done to try and understand the DNA damage repair pathway.
My lab has a slightly different take, and we came to it somewhat… oddly. My lab studies very basic properties of chromosomes; in particular, how chromosomes are placed inside the nucleus. We believe that the placement of chromosomes and the way they’re folded will one day be as strongly considered heritable material as we now think of DNA and epigenetic marks.
So in the process of studying that, we were made aware of a very strange set of sequences
called ultra-conserved elements. And what I’m going to tell you now is really speculative. We like this model. We are studying it, fully aware that we may be wrong. But it’s been great fun. And the model, while it could well be wrong, helps us to frame our experiments.
DUTCHEN: OK. Disclaimer noted.
WU: Thank you. Our model is that these very strange sequences, which seem to have resisted change for 3 million [or] 5 million years — that’s well before the dinosaurs. It’s
before reptiles, birds and mammals diverged from each other.
DUTCHEN: Long time ago.
WU: So these are a long, long time ago. These sequences have not changed. And we really — the field — by “we,” I mean the field — has no well-accepted, proven explanation for their ability to withstand all those years. While their brother and sister sequences have been mutated and changed, they have not. Through a set of arguments I won’t go into now, we think that these sequences do a very special thing. Basically, their job is not to change.
And in order not to change, they manage to maintain the integrity of the genome that’s around them. And when they see too much damage going on, they actually send up red flags and cause that cell to be culled from the body.
So the simple connection to space is this. If we can understand how these sequences work, maybe we could induce them to be even better in astronauts. So astronauts can go into space. Their DNA can get damaged. We know it gets damaged much more in space than here on Earth. But when it’s damaged badly, those cells are simply culled from their body and are not allowed to develop into tumors, which is one of the outcomes we think happens when a genome is damaged badly.
DUTCHEN: Interesting. So thinking, again, about the different ways that the study of genetics can be applied to people going into space: A couple of years ago, you co-hosted a seminar that was held here at HMS, where you had people from the Department of Genetics and then people from Jet Propulsion Lab, people from all over the country, who came and just shared their thoughts, speculative or based in the near future or current research, on all of the different ways that the study of genetics could improve the lives of astronauts and help humanity get off the planet that birthed them, now or in the distant
future, when we have somehow destroyed our planet beyond being able to live on it, which was great fun.
I was able to go. And I know you talked a little bit about the ultra-conserved elements there. But there was a lot being discussed about all the different ways that space travel can impact the human body and what we might be able to do to improve that experience.
I mean, what was that like for you to be part of?
WU: It was great fun. I will say, in all my years as a research scientist, I have never seen the instantaneous excitement over a speaker or a symposium as I saw for that particular event. I think that was one of the most rewarding parts of the symposium. Now, Adam Steltzner came and told a beautiful story about putting Curiosity on Mars, a very inspiring story. And then we had Dorit Donoviel come from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. She summarized a lot of the research that she oversees, having to do with many physiological parts of our body. And then we had a number of faculty from the Department of Genetics. I’d like to point out an interesting piece that Susan Dymecki mentioned, which is the concern about how human beings can survive in terms of their behavior, whether they’re happy or not in space, the stress on a person’s sense of wellbeing. There are many who believe that, in spite of all of the physical stresses on human beings that makes travel in space difficult, it’s actually the stresses on an astronaut’s mind that people are most concerned about.
And she mentioned how in some contexts, chess is banned.
DUTCHEN: Chess is banned–
WU: Chess is banned–
DUTCHEN: –in space?
WU: –in space, because in a small, confined space, the stress of chess can be a little too difficult.
DUTCHEN: My goodness.
WU: Yeah. So Susan talked a lot about her studies of understanding how the brain is wired, what parts of the brain control breathing rate or emotions. So that is a very important part of space genetics that people often don’t think of as something that needs to be addressed.
DUTCHEN: I would say that would be unexpected, yes.
WU: I’ve talked with people from NASA, and they generally agree. That is a piece that has to be solved. And these long trips, they’re talking about trips that will take ten or more years going one way, with just a small group of people. And after a while, you can imagine that’s one that’s going to weigh most heavily.
DUTCHEN: That’s right.
WU: And then we also had people — Bruce Yankner talked about the impact on cognition. People in space need to be on the mark all the time, stay on their toes. What happens to an aging brain, an aging brain under space? Can we understand what molecules with genes protect the brain, what genes don’t? And Gary Ruvkun talked about trying to understand if life has already arrived on certain planets, Mars, for example, before we get there. It helps us understand where we come
from, where we’re going, how much we want to protect a planet when we arrive there.
George Church talked about what some people have come to call protective variance. So these are variations in the genome that, for example, can increase your bone density.
Might that be useful in counteracting bone loss? We’ll have to see.There are variants that can reduce pain sensation. Will that be useful in cases where you might have to do, for example, surgery in space? We talked about the microbiome, the
issues of whether we want to bring our microbiome into space or leave it behind. I know that in the microbiome world, people are wondering how much the microbiome affects one’s day-to-day sense of wellbeing. Will that help?
DUTCHEN: So there can be some variants that astronauts have that are beneficial to the special types of stresses that you would experience during space travel, long- or shortterm. I can imagine a future in which that sparks all kinds of debates about who gets selected for those kinds of programs. Do you choose people to become astronauts who have those variants, or do you somehow engineer those variants to whomever is chosen to go? And obviously, we don’t have answers for any of that, but I can imagine that would fire people up.
WU: Yes, and those are very good questions that I think are on the table. People recognize very much all the potential benefits of genetics. And they really want to
maximize the benefits, bringing in, as little as possible, confounding negative aspects of genetic information. I think this is one of the topics that is going to engage people. And thank goodness if it does, because we need many, many different kinds of input to understand how we’re going to answer those questions.
DUTCHEN: So, OK, you promised we could get to the science fiction stuff. One of the last speakers at that symposium was David Sinclair. And he was spinning out all these fun speculations about if we’re going to go on these multigenerational space trips to, I don’t know, other solar systems, other galaxies, that maybe there would be ways that we
could tweak the human genome so that people would live longer.
DUTCHEN: Or that we could somehow engineer the babies that are born in space to be more adapted to that environment. I mean, it was super fun to think about. Is that
something that you think about, too?
WU: So yes, I think about it from all different points of view. These trips are very long. How are you going to get to some of those planets that are so far away? We’re talking about generations of humans. And one strategy is to figure out how a person can take off from Earth and live the entire set of years and arrive at the other end fully functional and able to do the task.
Another strategy is to figure out a way where that person can have progeny with other people and train them, knowing that those progeny will want to do that at the other end.
That’s a tall order. Another thing we think about is the science fiction-like possibility of holding a person in the developed state, trained and ready, holding them so they do not change and do not age, and end up generations later ready to go.
DUTCHEN: Like in one of those icy cryopods?
WU: Exactly. And then there’s [a question of] how you hold them. Do you hold them in their current state? Do you freeze them? Do you dry them down? Do you print them?
These are all things that are on the table to think about. I can tell you there are no technologies now that make anyone confident that any of these will work. But the past 100 years of genetic research has shown us that we can do some pretty amazing things.
DUTCHEN: And you have a postdoc coming to your lab, this summer is it?
WU: This spring.
DUTCHEN: It’s going to be this spring, very soon. He’s going to be working exclusively on a project related to space. Tell me more.
WU: So my laboratory, as I mentioned earlier, is very interested in how the genome is arranged and packaged in the nucleus. It’s been a long project. We’ve been building to this point over several years. And the first step was to try and develop a technology that would allow us to see the genome at the resolution we would need to see it at, in order to understand folding.
So one question we have is, when you take away gravity, how is it going to affect that kind of packaging? Now, we really don’t know.
DUTCHEN: It might do nothing, or it might turn everything haywire?
WU: It might do nothing. It may be that the genome has no such sense of gravity. Or it may cause some changes, which may have absolutely no effect on how the genome behaves. Or it may have some changes that will, over time, have a degrading effect on the way the genome behaves.
If it’s the third one, then we need to start to think very seriously about how to counteract those results or to generate spaceships that will be able to recreate gravity for our astronauts for very, very long term travel. You mentioned David Sinclair’s discussion at that symposium about having children in space. Development is a very delicate time. It may be that adults can go into space, and these changes to their genome really won’t matter too much. But development is based on thousands, millions, of very precise decisions. And so we would need to know in, for example, mice, as they develop, what happens to the chromatin structure or the structure of the genome.
And so what Hoy is going to do, my postdoc who’s coming in the spring, is to — we’re collaborating with some individuals who will be able to get us cells from space. And we’re going to look at, compare the genome structure of cells from space and cells on Earth, to see if we can see a difference.
DUTCHEN: I was going to ask how you study something like that. Do you just do your experiments up on a spacecraft? Or do you get to put them in one of those planes that just drops the gravity out from under you?
WU: So we’ve formed a collaboration with Bruce Hammer at the University of Minnesota. He grows cells, I believe, in the International Space Station and will be able to provide those to us. He also has developed a machine that tries to simulate or simulates microgravity. And we’ll be able to get cells from that machine, too.
DUTCHEN: That just sounds like fun. All of this stuff sounds like fun. Is it fun to work
on this? Is it fun to think about?
WU: It’s great fun. It’s fun to think about. It’s fun to talk about. I think that scientists
love getting out of their comfort zone, going to places where they’re not sure they’re going to succeed or fail. There’s great excitement there.
DUTCHEN: Going where no geneticist has gone before.
WU: Exactly. And then seeing what we can see. This is one of these situations where we can just collect data and learn something entirely new, without having to go out and prove something. Of course, we would love to be able to prove that it’s safe to spend a long time in space. Whether or not that turns out to be the case, I don’t know. But it’s important to find out.
DUTCHEN: Do you have an ultimate hope for what your projects or your postdoc’s project or your colleagues’ projects might ultimately lead to?
WU: I would love it if we could make our astronauts safer. It would be great if what we find enables us to go further in space and learn things that we can’t even dream of right now. And I’m truly hoping that what we learn, for example, about these ultraconserved elements will be able to help general health issues on Earth. We think that cancer is one of those diseases that have escaped the ultraconserved element surveillance system. And so if we can hone that system or up that system in individuals that have cancer, maybe we can literally just cull those cancer cells right out of a person’s body.
DUTCHEN: That’s a much more compassionate answer than maybe saying that you want them to name the first terraformed settlement after you, or something.
WU: I would give that up in a moment if we could address these diseases.
DUTCHEN: I guess that’s a great note to end on.
WU: Thank you for your interest.
DUTCHEN: Oh, thank you for sharing all of these, definite food for thought.
DUTCHEN: And now, for this month’s abstract.
MILLER: Birth control pills or oral contraceptives are more than 99 percent effective with diligent use. Still, some women do become pregnant while taking these pills or soon after stopping them. That means their unborn children may be exposed to the hormones in the pills. And very little is known about whether that causes any health consequences.
A new study from researchers at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offer some good news. They found that taking oral
contraceptives just before or during pregnancy does not increase the risk of birth defects.
Working with colleagues in Denmark, the team analyzed data from multiple Danish health registries between 1997 and 2011. The registries included information about 900,000 live-born infants and the health of each child one year later. The researchers estimated oral contraceptive use based on the mother’s last prescription fill date.
About 1/5 of the women in the study had never used oral contraceptives before becoming pregnant. More than 2/3 had stopped using oral contraceptives at least three months before becoming pregnant. Eight percent had stopped within three months of becoming pregnant. And 1 percent had used oral contraceptives after becoming pregnant. The researchers found that the prevalence of major birth defects — about 25 for every 1,000 live births — was equal across all the women, regardless of whether they were on the pill. The numbers remained consistent even when the researchers factored in pregnancies that ended as stillbirths or induced abortions.
The first author of the study, Brittany Charlton, says the results should reassure women
and their health care providers.
DUTCHEN: This podcast is a production of Harvard Medical School’s Office of Communications. Thank you for listening. And thanks to our producer, Rick Groleau. To
learn more about the research discussed in this podcast or to let us know what you think,
visit HMS.harvard.edu/podcasts. You can also follow us on Twitter, where our handle is
@HarvardMed, or like us on Facebook.
Now, we leave you with an outtake from our interview involving an imaging technique called fluorescent in situ hybridization, or FISH for short.
WU: So the first step was to develop a new kind of probe that would allow us to visualize
the single-copy parts of the genome. And Brian Beliveau spearheaded that project, led to the development of a new kind of FISH probe, which we call oligoPAINTS.
WU: FISH. That’s right. Fish in space. And–
WU: Shall I start that again?
DUTCHEN: I don’t know. It was perfect.
WU: Oh, OK. let me do that again. I don’t know why I said fish. OK. There are a lot of jokes about fish. We talk about dead fish, live fish experiments. OK.
END OF INTERVIEW
NASA astronaut and Expedition 62 Flight Engineer Jessica Meir shares her thoughts on the mission, and returning to Earth during the first wave of the COVID pandemic.
What killed the dinosaurs?
Origin of the Armageddon causing comet
The enduring puzzle has always been where the asteroid or comet originated, and how it came to strike the Earth. And now a pair of Harvard researchers believe they have the answer.
‘Pondering Distant Suns’
Munazza Alam, a Ph.D. student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, studies the atmospheres of exoplanets by using the light of their suns.
SPEAKERS Munazza Alam, Jennifer BerglundJennifer Berglund 00:04 Welcome to HMSC Connects! where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. And I’ll be your host. This Saturday is a very important day, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. It’s a celebration of the thing we literally cannot live without. It’s the thing that makes life possible, and summer days delightful. It’s our very own star, the Sun. But our sun isn’t the only star in the sky, and not even close to the brightest. Today, I’m speaking with Munazza Alam, a PhD student at the Harvard- Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, as well as a National Geographic Young Explorer. She calls herself an exoplanetiere, because she studies the atmospheres of exoplanets, or planets outside of our solar system. But get this. She does it using the light of their suns using data from the Hubble Telescope. Munazza Alam, welcome!
Munazza Alam 01:38 Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.
Jennifer Berglund 01:46 Give me a brief overview of who you are and what you do.
Munazza Alam 01:53 I like to think of myself as studying the weather on other worlds. So I study the atmospheres of exoplanets, and our observations and our analyses kind of tell us about the clouds and the hazes and what the atmospheres are made of. It kind of reminds me of the forecasts that we hear on the on the news when we try to figure out the weather for the next day. And so my research is a little bit like figuring out the forecast on these faraway worlds. From my work studying the atmospheres of these distant worlds, it has proven to me that nature is the ultimate creative mastermind, because, in particular, the planets that I study don’t have any solar system analogues, meaning there’s nothing like them in our own solar system. So the planets that I studied in particular are called Hot Jupiters, and they’re called that because they are similar to our own solar systems’ Jupiter in terms of their their composition and their makeup. They are gas giant planets, but they’re so close to their stars, that they’re very hot. And when I say that they’re close to their host stars, I mean that, in some cases, a year on these planets could be a day or two or even less than a day in some cases.
Jennifer Berglund 03:07 Whoa, that’s crazy.
Munazza Alam 03:08 Yeah. And so because of these kind of intense and extreme conditions of being super hot and being blasted by this radiation from their stars, the chemistry and the physics of what happens in the atmospheres of these planets is also extreme or intense. And so we end up with atmospheres on these planets that are very exotic. We’ve discovered, for example, planets that have clouds that are made up of corundum, which forms rubies and sapphires. And so when it rains on this planet, the raindrops are ruby raindrops. We’ve also discovered planet.
Jennifer Berglund 03:41 That’s insane.
Munazza Alam 03:42 Yeah, it’s crazy to think about. We’ve also discovered planets that are so dark, they’re considered charcoal black, and we’ve also found a planet that is very hot and when it rains out silicates from its clouds, their raindrops are essentially raindrops of molten glass.
Jennifer Berglund 04:00 Oh my God.
Munazza Alam 04:01 It’s really wild to think about because these sound like fictional science fiction worlds.
Jennifer Berglund 04:06 Absolutely.
Munazza Alam 04:07 But they exist within our own galaxy.
Jennifer Berglund 04:13 So when you study these Hot Jupiters, you have to study them in the context of their suns, right?
Munazza Alam 04:20 So because these planets are orbiting these very bright stars, we can’t actually see them directly. It’s kind of like trying to look at a firefly next to a bright lamp. So, in dark sky, if you just see a firefly by itself, you can see it glowing very brightly. But next to a brighter source of light, it’ll be difficult to discern the firefly. And so similarly, because these planets are orbiting stars that are much brighter than them, we can’t actually directly see and observe these planets. And so we have to kind of infer the presence of these planets, and kind of what’s going on these planets in their atmospheres indirectly. And so we use these combined light techniques–cmbined star and planet light techniques. And in particular, the technique that I use to detect and to characterize exoplanet atmospheres relies on observing planets when they transit or pass in front of their host stars. So from our vantage point on Earth, what we’ll see is a dip in the starlight corresponding to when the planet is in front of the star. And that’s because when a planet transits, it’s going to block out a fraction of the starlight proportional to the size of the planet, it’s kind of like the the planet is casting a shadow on the planet. Then depending on what wavelength or color of light that we’re looking at, the planet’s atmosphere, if it has one, can appear more or less opaque. At wavelengths where the atmosphere is more opaque, the planet will appear larger. And that’s because that is where absorption by atoms and molecules that are present in the planet’s atmosphere will occur. So we can actually figure out what the planet’s hemisphere is made of by observing the size of the planet at different wavelengths, and from these observations, we can infer what atoms and molecules make up a planet’s atmosphere. And also, if there are any clouds and hazes on the planet.
Jennifer Berglund 06:12 That’s amazing that you can tell all of that just from what is basically, would it be correct to say an atmospheric sort of silhouette?
Munazza Alam 06:20 Yeah, he’s kind of like a silhouette because the, essentially, we are gleaning all this information about what the atmosphere is made of, and kind of what chemistry and physics is going on in these atmospheres, by filtering starlight through the atmosphere. It’s not it’s an indirect detection. So yeah, it kind of is like a silhouette.
Jennifer Berglund 06:39 If some sort of distant alien colony in another solar system were studying our atmosphere in the same way, what would they see? And why?
Munazza Alam 06:50 Oh, that’s, that’s an interesting question. So I will say this, depending on how advanced this alien colonies telescopes are, they may or may not be able to detect anything. So the best case scenario involves the biggest planets around the brightest stars with the puffiest kind of extended atmospheres. Those are the kind of best conditions for us to get the highest quality data, to get the most precise kind of constraints on what the planet’s atmosphere is made of. But in that instance, there
Jennifer Berglund 07:22 So were basically two puny is what you’re saying.
Munazza Alam 07:25 Yeah, exactly. Because in the best case scenario, the the size of what bumps and wiggles that we’ll see if we split the light of the planet’s atmosphere in the way that I described using that technique, the best case scenario for a large planet orbiting a bright star with an extended atmosphere, puffy atmosphere, is a 10th of a percent.
Jennifer Berglund 07:44 Oh, wow.
Munazza Alam 07:46 So it’s like a very, very small signal that we’re looking for. And if you go down to smaller-sized planets, like something Earth sized, that number, that 10th of a percent, is going to drop by a factor of three or four orders of magnitude.
Jennifer Berglund 08:02 Well, then what about our Jupiter? Is it too far away?
Munazza Alam 08:06 Yes. And so our Jupiter’s too far away. It would also be difficult to observe in this way because we have to wait for it to pass in front of its star, or if the alien civilization missed it, for example, then it would they would have to wait quite a while for it to come back around. We say that these are like periodic observations. And so the closer in to the star that the planet is, the more opportunities we have to observe it passing in front of its star.
Jennifer Berglund 08:32 Oh, okay. Okay, this is all so fascinating. So what’s the closest hot Jupiter to us that you study?
Munazza Alam 08:41 The closest hot Jupiters that I studied to us are like 10s of light years away. So still pretty far.
Jennifer Berglund 08:49 In looking at the atmospheres of these distant planets, are you trying to see if they’re habitable?
Munazza Alam 08:57 So habitability is one of the long term goals of kind of studying exoplanet atmospheres. But we’re not quite there just yet in terms of the instruments and telescopes that we have. We have some upcoming facilities that will be able to see at wavelengths that are sensitive to absorption by what we call the biosignatures, or fingerprints of life. And that will help us, or begin to help us, address these questions of habitability on these distant worlds. But at the same time, even if we see evidence of these biosignatures, these fingerprints of life, that’s not a definitive answer as to whether or not there is life on those planets, because geological processes or other things going on those planets could also change the composition of the atmosphere such that we are detecting these atoms or molecules. And also, it’s possible, I mean, we’ve seen just with the first types of planets that we’ve found outside of the solar system, these hot Jupiters, we didn’t have anything like that in our solar system. Prior to the discovery of the first exoplanet, the first hot Jupiter, we wouldn’t have even fathomed that such a planet could exist. And so it’s possible that that the lifeforms that exist outside of the solar system, if they do exist, are very different from anything we can fathom, and so our idea of what are these biosignatures, these fingerprints of life, and kind of what it means for a planet to be habitable is very much shaped by carbon-based life forms, and life on Earth.
Jennifer Berglund 10:23 The life we know.
Munazza Alam 10:25 The life that we know. Exactly. And so it’s possible that the life that is out there is very different, very, very different from the life that we know. I said it before, nature is the ultimate creative mastermind, and so, yeah, it’s possible that that what’s out there is beyond what we can imagine.
Jennifer Berglund 10:46 Do you think life exists out there?
Munazza Alam 10:50 I do. I like to think so.
Jennifer Berglund 10:54 I’d like to think that we’re not alone either. Even if that life is microbial, or some sort of equivalent.
Munazza Alam 11:01 Yes. Even if it’s microbial life. Yeah, I’d like to think that we’re not alone.
Jennifer Berglund 11:07 So basically your work, it’s sort of laying the early groundwork for investigating ways in which to study planets that could host life as we understand it.
Munazza Alam 11:17 Yeah, it is definitely laying the groundwork. It’s perfecting the techniques for being able to do that. And I also think in its most fundamental form, my work is important for contextualizing our place in our planet within the planets that exist in our galaxy and in the universe.
Jennifer Berglund 11:35 Were you always an admirer of the stars?
Munazza Alam 11:39 I was definitely a dorky kid. I was interested in fossils and dinosaurs, but I wasn’t, I wasn’t interested in astronomy and space as a kid. So growing up, I grew up in New York City, and so growing up, I didn’t really see much of the stars, and I didn’t have a backyard telescope. You know, growing up, I could only see a handful of stars at a time at best. So, we didn’t have a backyard telescope. I wasn’t one of those kids that watched space movies? I say that I found astronomy later in life when I was actually a college student.
Jennifer Berglund 12:06 Yes. And you’re so advanced in your years. How old are you?
Munazza Alam 12:10 I’m 26 years old. But growing up, I was always a curious kid. I think my my parents said that the question I asked most frequently was “why?” And they said that sometimes it’s very aggravating for me to always just be like, “why, why why?” But I think that curiosity really kind of did help me in terms of school. I was always interested in math and science because I liked the fact that those subjects helped me scratch that itch. Those subjects really helped me kind of get the answers to to the whys. And so, in particular, I found that I really enjoyed my high school physics class that I took in 11th grade. I enjoyed the material. I liked the idea of critical thinking and problem solving. I found that it was challenging, but that I was good at it. And my teacher was absolutely inspiring to me. She was very encouraging to all of her students in the class, and she was also the first woman that I knew who had a PhD in physics, and so after taking her classes, I knew that I wanted to study physics, to major in physics and undergrad. I went to undergrad at Hunter College in New York City, and that’s where I connected with an astronomer who was running a research group in the astrophysics department at the American Museum of Natural History.
Jennifer Berglund 13:30 That’s amazing.
Munazza Alam 13:31 Yeah, it was really neat. And so I kind of started off the summer before my first semester of undergrad, so it was like the summer after high school. So I started off that summer kind of just hanging out with the more advanced undergrads who are doing research and attending seminars, and colloquia. I started off kind of being a part of the research community without actually contributing, but I loved listening to people talk about their research because I was engaging with people who were asking questions that no one knew the answer to. And I really like that idea, like, to me research very much seemed like working on a jigsaw puzzle where everyone’s kind of working on trying to fit one piece of the puzzle in with the other pieces that we know. But we don’t have the box. And so, it really takes teamwork and effort to kind of work together to see how the pieces fit together and what the big picture looks like.
Jennifer Berglund 14:25 Yeah, and the other thing about it is you don’t have to be afraid to be wrong.
Munazza Alam 14:29 Yeah, like that’s the difference between homework versus research. In homework, there’s a solution set that will come out, and like one answer to one problem. And research is multifaceted. There’s so many different angles to consider, and there’s room for everyone to kind of bring their skillset to the table. What particularly drew me to astronomy was the fact that I could talk about astronomy with others, even if they weren’t astronomers. And that’s because it’s fundamentally human, for us to be awe-inspired by the cosmos. And I found this accessibility of astronomy has particularly renewed my love for it over and over and over again. I’ve talked about my research with children in in grade schools, I’ve talked about my research with the general public. I’ve talked about my research to adults who are perhaps not scientists. And every time I have discussed my research inside of such a setting, I have been met with the same reaction of excitement and fascination and awe. And that’s because it is the core of our human nature to look up at the stars and contemplate the cosmos. In particular, I found that exoplanets are really exciting to me because this question of ‘are we are alone?’ This ultimate question about whether or not life exists outside the universe, and what are the other worlds like out there? Has been a question that has been asked throughout history, throughout cultures, by some of the greatest thinkers, by everyday humans. I feel like, in some respects, I’m applying new techniques to an age old question.
Jennifer Berglund 16:18 This week is Solstice week, our summer solstice, the longest day of the year, peak of summer. In studying Hot Jupiters, and their Suns, or studying them through their Suns, essentially, or the Suns through them, I guess would be the better way to say it. How have you grown to appreciate our own Sun as a star among an infinite number of stars in the universe?
Munazza Alam 16:45 This is a really interesting question because it actually reminds me of something that Giordano Bruno, who was a 16th century Italian thinker, wrote. He wrote, “there are countless suns and countless Earths all rotating around thir suns in exactly the same way as the planets of our system. The countless worlds are no worse and no less inhabited than our own Earth.” And so these were his musings on this idea of, “are we alone?” And they highlight that our sun isn’t anything particularly special, so perhaps life on Earth isn’t either. And I think this is a really interesting mindset because I spend my days thinking about length scales and timescales and distances that are, quite literally, larger than life. W e’re talking astronomical timescales and lengthscales and distances. And compared to astronomical timescales, for example, our human existence is nothing. But then, when I think about the span of a lifetime, and the experiences that I have in my, in my life, and that the experiences that we have in our lifetimes, all the days that pass us by, all the days that make up our lives, that’s everything to us. And I think what’s really special about that is looking at these larger than life, these literal astronomical scales, and just having those large distances and timescales remind us how meaningful our day to day experiences are.
Jennifer Berglund 18:16 Do you think we’re special? And what do you think makes us special?
Munazza Alam 18:20 I think one of the things that makes us and life on Earth so special is the unique advances that we’ve made as humanity. I think about the catalogue of culture and poetry and music that has existed in our human history. And I think about the thoughts that people have had, the greatest thinkers, and those thoughts, and those ideas of thinking, and that art has all come about through a collective experience on a particular planet, and we can’t recreate that in another planet with different conditions with different life forms. I mean, even if we look at like science fiction worlds and movies, and kind of those, that world building in a science fiction kind of framework, it’s so different from the history of what we have on Earth. And I think that it’s only natural for a planet with a different history and different kind of legacy to have a different flavor, to have a different kind of outlook. And I think it goes back to kind of like on the timescales of a lifetime, our everyday is very meaningful.
Jennifer Berglund 19:31 On the day of solstice, which is June 20, which I believe is a Saturday this year, as an astronomer who thinks about distant planets that are so different from our own and distant suns. Is there anything in particular that you are going to reflect on, or that you would encourage other people to reflect on?
Munazza Alam 19:52 Yeah, I’m just thinking about. I’ve been I’ve been speaking to a lot of close friends and family and reading in the news, and just thinking about what’s going on in the world right now. We have a literal pandemic that has uprooted a lot of people’s routines and fundamentally changed their everyday lives. But then we’ve also got a lot of unrest, and a lot of unfair and unjust things happening in the world. I will particularly be reflecting on the power of the human race, which, for centuries, has been sequestered to a small group of people, and how those with power and privilege, myself included, can use our voices to speak out and speak up for, and allow other people whose voices have been silenced to be heard.
Jennifer Berglund 20:42 Because we are one planet. We are one planet revolving around the Sun.
Munazza Alam 20:48 And it’s the same planet, the same sky, the same Sun that we look at, everyone in human history has looked at.
Jennifer Berglund 20:58 Munazza Alam, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you. I hope we get to see more of you at the Museums.
Munazza Alam 21:05 Thanks so much. It was great talking with you.
Jennifer Berglund 21:15 Today’s HMSC Connects! Podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Munazza Alam for her wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening. Before we go though, one quick thing. In normal years the HMSC usually throws a major party for the summer solstice. But in the interest of adhering to social distancing guidelines, we’ve moved this year’s celebration online. That means everyone around the world can join us. So tell all your friends! There’s a lot going on. So please check out hmsc.harvard.edu/summer-solstice to RSVP and see a listing of programs. And of course, if you liked today’s podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See you next week!
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