MSS19 Student Katie Harris Interns At Massachusetts General Hospital


International Space University (ISU) Master of Space Studies (MSS19) student Katie Harris reports on her internship at the Laboratory for Neuroimaging and Integrative Physiology - the Neural Systems group (NSG) at the Massachusetts General Hospital, organised and supervised by ISU alumnus Vladimir Ivkovic.

When people think of astronauts in space, they think of the awe-inspiring images from the Cupola module, the magic of spacewalks, the famous Chris Hadfield music video, or the science demonstrations done by the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) to fascinated viewers around the world. However, being in space is not all fun and games for the astronauts. The ISS presents many physiological challenges including microgravity, noise, and most importantly for my internship research, sleep disruption, which may have significant impacts on the astronauts’ operational proficiency.

internship KH2This summer, I am completing my internship with the Laboratory for Neuroimaging and Integrative Physiology, which is part of the Neural Systems group (NSG) in the Department of Psychiatry in Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), working under ISU alumnus Vladimir Ivkovic, who is the director of the lab and an instructor of psychiatry in Harvard Medical School. We are developing protocol for using the NINscan instrument, which is a portable device that was developed by senior members of NSG (Dr. Strangman and Dr. Zhang) to do multitudes of brain and physiological monitoring using a combination of Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) and electrical activity sensors, on board the ISS to monitor astronaut’s sleep cycles and physiological functions as part of NASA’s 1-year Integrated Mission Protocol.

This NINscan monitoring on the ISS will be done in combination with monitoring of operational proficiency using a device called the Robotic On-Board Trainer (ROBoT), which uses the operational task of grappling the H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) with the Canadarm2 to assess the astronaut’s ability to perform mission-critical tasks with a low level of error. The astronauts will also complete a suite of cognitive tests, neurophysiologic exams, as well as immunological and metabolomic assays.

Our work right now is focused on creating the protocol which will allow us to assess the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on astronaut’s ability to do their job in orbit. This research will be critical to ensuring the safety of astronauts on long term missions, and the future of a sustainable human space presence. Part of my work will be recruiting subjects for the ground control study and teaching them how to use ROBoT and the NINscan device. I will also be working on the reduction and analysis of parabolic flight data which was collected using NINscan in order to learn more about the data we can expect to collect from the ISS and our ground-based control studies.

I’m on Week 2 of my internship and am currently getting to know the other professors and students in the lab, studying the literature on NIRS technology and ambulatory brain monitoring applications, and learning as much as I can about what goes into building a 7-year mission on the ISS with ground controls and NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) participants.

internship KH3I’ve also completed a suite of ethical training for human subject research, which has been an interesting interdisciplinary aspect of my mostly Human Performance in Space (and a bit of engineering and applications) internship. One of the highlights so far has been learning how to use ROBoT in order to train study participants. It’s challenging to use Canadarm2 to grapple a tumbling HTV, but it’s a lot of fun to practice a task that astronauts have to do as part of their job. The various talks and seminars occurring at MGH are also fascinating - there’s never a lack of new things to learn or experts to interact with!
internship KH4

In the meantime, I’ve been settling into Boston and exploring the city. The North End boasts of 100 Italian restaurants, and it is rumoured that not a single one of them will disappoint. However, after many amazing meals provided by the Italian students in MSS19, I fear that my standards are unreasonably high. I also recently obtained my sailing rating for Community Boating in Boston, which is conveniently located right next to Massachusetts General Hospital Main Campus! Despite the unexpected capsize test which left my work clothes soaked in river water, I’m excited to get out on the Charles after work and experience Boston from the water.


About ISU’s MSS program

Figure 1 - Cookie welcome party at the Neural Systems Group. From left to right, Dr. Vlad Ivkovic (author's supervisor), Dr. Gary Strangman (director of the group), Jackie Gong (fellow summer student), Dr. Quan Zhang (engineering lead of the group), and author.
Figure 2 - Author standing at the Harvard Medical School Entrance.
Figure 3 - Author wearing NINscan instrument and using the ROBoT controls.
Figure 4 - Author holding her very wet work shirt after completing her on-water Laser Radial test at Community Boating Inc.
Pictures credit: International Space University