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10 Questions With Penn State Professor & Astronaut Jim Pawelczyk

The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which manages the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory, recently announced that Dr. Jim Pawelczyk had joined its board of directors.

Pawelczyk is an associate professor of physiology and kinesiology at Penn State and a former NASA astronaut who flew on board Space Shuttle Columbia in 1998 as a payload specialist.

We sat down with Pawelczyk to learn more about his new role, his experiences in space, and the future of CASIS.

Onward State: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Jim Pawelczyk: This is officially my 25 years at Penn State. Before that, I spent about a decade in Texas. I was at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. Then before that, I was at the medical school in Fort Worth. Prior to all that time, I did a master’s degree here at Penn State. I did an undergraduate degree at the University of Rochester in upstate New York, and I’m originally from near Buffalo.

OS: What brought you to Penn State?

JP: Initially for a master’s degree, I made my decision when I was doing my training that I wanted to be at a different school for every one of my degrees just to get more breadth of experience. In the area of applied physiology, the people that I was working with at undergrad said, ‘Where are the best places in the country to go?,’ and Penn State was right up there at the top of the list, that’s how I ended up at Penn State. It was great, the Penn State experience as a graduate student. I met my wife here as well. She was originally a State College native so coming back here was all so natural.

OS: Why did you join the CASIS board of directors?

JP: CASIS is a pretty neat organization because the fundamental mission of CASIS right now is to manage the International Space Station National Laboratory. In 2005, an act of Congress essentially took half of the resources of the International Space Station and gave it a National Laboratory designation, which means it’s available for researchers all over the nation to utilize the space environment to advance their research questions. So that makes it absolutely unique. When you look at where we’re at in society and life right now…Mackenna how old are you?

OS: I’m 18.

JP: You are 18. So if you think about your entire life, we have had a human being living off of this planet on the International Space Station. We are literally transitioning right now to a space-faring society. We’re creating an entirely new economy in low Earth orbit and ultimately beyond low Earth orbit. To be part of guiding that, I just think that’s an incredible opportunity for the future of our society. I think you officially qualify as Generation Z, so I call your generation the space-faring generation.

OS: What do you see for the future of CASIS?

JP: CASIS is in an interesting transition role for a number of different reasons. We talk about near-term, medium-term, and long-term. Near-term, right now, CASIS needs to hire a new executive director for the organization that manages the day-in-day-out. That will be a national search that will be ongoing. Very soon we will be releasing the parameters for that. Once we have that person on board, then there will be a little bit of refocusing of the mission.

The ways that the National Laboratory is used, it’s quite different. Anything from people’s basic science projects to commercial applications that will be for future manufacturing in low Earth orbit. We have to figure out how to grow some of those elements; particularly, that idea of industrialization in low Earth orbit is ultimately what will happen in this decade. That there will be purpose-built space-based manufacturing facilities. So, this is the incubator to try out and develop those processes and that’s an exciting new role as well.

The other thing we have to recognize is that the International Space Station isn’t going to last forever. The first elements were launched in 1998, so they are 22 years old. We are trying to decide, by ‘we’ I mean NASA and the federal government, how long the International Space Station will remain viable. Because when the International Space Station goes away, the National Laboratory goes away as well. So, what does the future look like towards the end of the ISS and transitioning beyond that? That’s a really long-term dialogue that will involve new legislation deciding how we manage what we call an ecosystem in low Earth orbit.

OS: What can you bring to the table for CASIS?

JP: One of the things that happened over the past year was that I was part of a group that was commissioned by the NASA Administrator to evaluate CASIS and the National Laboratory and to think about different and alternative models. We spent about six months a year ago looking at this. And when we delivered that report, it was received very favorably by people in the federal government, people within NASA, budgetary people, and science people. Ultimately, that’s kind of how I landed on CASIS’s doorstep. That hopefully I can help bring some of those thoughts.

One of the things that happen with that is bringing in a strong community of users and giving them a greater voice in the management and organization of the facility. So that’s one of the things I bring to the table. The other thing that I’ve done as an astronaut working as a scientist is that I’ve been very involved with planning research agendas for areas of biological and physical sciences and what we can do in low Earth orbit. CASIS’s job, that is, is to operationalize those ideas. I can help serve in that transitional role between the scientific community and the operational community.

OS: What was the most exciting part about being in space?

JP: There’s so many different ways to answer that question. I guess the simplest part from sort of an astronaut standpoint is the exciting part. That first time you get to look at the Earth, which is just so spectacular, and the variation in color is something that you really don’t appreciate how vivid it’s going to be and it really kind of blows you away. Every different word you can think of for blue you see just when you go over the oceans. From azures to cobalt to turquoise, you name it. That’s more part of the personal experience, but I think that opportunity to be the eyes and hands of investigators from all around the world is the part that is intellectually rewarding and certainly serving the scientific community. I think that’s probably the best part.

OS: How has your experience working with NASA in the past impacted what you are focusing on now at Penn State?

JP: Some of the things that we look at are conditions, in particular low blood pressure regulation, which is also a problem that we see in astronauts after space flight. So, we’ve been able to develop different therapeutic approaches to help people manage their blood pressure better that worked for astronauts and also worked for people on the ground.

OS: How has that experience impacted what you’re doing with CASIS?

JP: I think it goes back probably to that earlier question, what do I bring to the table. It is that idea of how do we operationalize research in space but then, more importantly, how do we take that research and reduce it to practice? So new industrial processes, new therapeutic approaches, new opportunities for manufacturing.

OS: Do you have any advice for students?

JP: I guess I would say two different things. Maybe the simplest way to say it is dare to succeed. One of the coolest things about Penn State is that we have experts in so many different areas and all you need to do is knock on their doors, get to know them, get involved, and get engaged. Sometimes at Penn State we go, ‘it’s so big, it seems a little overwhelming’ and people are a little shy about doing that, and they shouldn’t be. They need to overcome that. It’s not going to slap you in the face, you need to go out and just grab those opportunities whenever you can.

The second piece of advice is one that I become more and more aware of. I hear so many students who talk about the idea of being a poser. You know, ‘gosh, I don’t know as much as all these smart people in the room. I just need to be a poser, you know, fake it ‘till you make it’, that idea. And I hate that idea, I absolutely hate it. Because what it does is it sort of diminishes you and it says that you don’t have something to contribute. If you think about these ‘P-O- words’, poser is a bad one, but there’s two that really represents what everybody who is senior to you, thinks about you. And the two ‘P-O- words’ that best characterize a Penn State student are “potential” and “possibility.” That’s what students need to take into these new environments.

As a student, by definition, you don’t know as much as other people in the room, that doesn’t make you a poser. That just means that you haven’t had that time in the saddle. Well, ok, that comes with experience. Everybody accepts that. It doesn’t mean that you’re a poser. But you have potential and possibility, so bring that energy into those environments because that’s what everybody is expecting of you. That you, as a student, have potential and you have new possibilities. So, represent that to the fullest. If you don’t, that’s where you fall short of the opportunities that are being presented to you. Stop thinking of yourself as a poser and start thinking of yourself as a person with potential and possibility.

OS: As per Onward State tradition, if you could be any dinosaur, which would you be and why?

JP: I chose a quetzalcoatlus. It is the largest of pterosaurs. If you were the largest flying dinosaur, that would be pretty badass, wouldn’t it?

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About the Author

Mackenna Yount

Mackenna is a junior food science major from Manitou Springs, Colorado, and is one of Onward State's associate editors. She loves food, is addicted to coffee, and can give you random facts or bad jokes that you didn't ask for. Ask her to bake gluten-free goodies so she has an excuse to try out new cupcake flavors. Mackenna can be contacted via Twitter @mackennayount (especially if you want to show off your best dad jokes) or you can shoot her an email at [email protected].

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