Inside Mizzou: Mizzou in Space

Truman the Tiger goes on a space walk

Nov. 5, 2019

The University of Missouri is — literally — out of this world. Our engineering students envision the future of rocketry, our faculty study the geology of distant moons and our journalism alumni lead podcasts for NASA. Even our Laws Observatory enables us to explore the far reaches of the universe from right here in Columbia. Since the Apollo Missions, our Mizzou family has been a national leader in space research. We continue to open up new pathways for interstellar discovery and reshape the way we think about life on Earth.

Join Chancellor Cartwright on this week’s Inside Mizzou podcast as he talks with Linda Godwin, a former NASA astronaut and retired professor of physics and astronomy, and Jordyn Lucas, a PhD student in biochemistry. Jordyn also works in Professor Donald Burke-Agüero’s laboratory as part of a NASA-funded project that uses ribonucleic acid (RNA) to explore the origins of life. They discuss our community’s rich contributions to space discovery, as well as the many ways we continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible across the universe.

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Moderator: [00:00:11] From the classroom to the cornfield, journalism to SEC athletics, the University of Missouri works 52 weeks a year, every year. This is Inside Mizzou – real stories, real discoveries and real impact of the Mizzou community. Today’s episode is called “Mizzou in Space.” When Neil Armstrong took one small step on the moon in 1969, the University of Missouri community was already five years into its own giant leap into space research. In 1964, Mizzou created the Space Sciences Research Center to support the Apollo Missions. This center worked closely with NASA and it attracted some of the nation’s top scientists. To this day, the university community has continued its pursuits into outer space. Our faculty, staff and students work hard to open up new pathways for interstellar discovery and reshape the way we think about life on Earth. Joining Chancellor Cartwright to talk more about this are Linda Godwin, a Retired Professor of Physics and Astronomy and a former NASA astronaut. And Jordan Lucas, a PhD student in biochemistry who works and Professor Donald Burke’s lab. As part of a NASA funded project, their team is using ribonucleic acid – or, RNA – to explore the origins of life. Thank you all for being here.

Everyone: [00:01:23] Great. Thank you. Yeah, thanks for having us.

Moderator: [00:01:26] Professor Godwin, your distinguished career took you literally out of this world. Through four missions, you spent over a month in space and logged two spacewalks. What’s it like taking that first step outside the shuttle? Is there a sight, sound or feeling that really sticks with you?

Linda Godwin: [00:01:42] Words fail me in a way. That was, those were great experiences. So I remember on my first spacewalk, I was the person opening the hatch and going out. And I mean, it’s an unknown, right? You don’t know what it’s going to seem like. And you’re in your own little space ship, sort of, because you’ve got, you know, your own air supply, a little drink bag, your own communication system. You can survive, you know, on your own for a while in that. And we had trained in it so much in the water tank. And so one of my first, you know, things that I expected, but yet it was so different, it was so easy to move out there without the water drag and in fact the first time I translated down this this, this side of our payload bay, I overshot my position because I thought, “This is so good, I’m just gonna keep going.” You know, so many people, it’s such a team effort, so much training, dedicated people that make these things happen. And we were also very focused on getting the job done. And so many people are watching. So it was all these feelings, and then not to mention being able to see the Earth in the background, you know, out there while we were out doing our work and everything was just, it was amazing. And I would say our NASA training prepared us for it very well.

Moderator: [00:02:57] And so before NASA, you were a Masters and PhD student in physics here at Mizzou. How did your graduate research and experiences prepare you for the space program?

Linda Godwin: [00:03:06] You know, my time here at Mizzou – and I lived at home to go to college, which was fine, and I came here for grad school – so this experience opened up my world. Being at Mizzou and the campus and Columbia. I mean, the memories of really hard work and late nights are there too. I think they get a little bit covered up over time, and you will, you’ll get there too. But what I, you know, it grew me here. I changed as a person. I became more self-confident, you know, more aware of my own capabilities. I had, you know, a really good advisor, mentors in the department. And so I could learn new things, you know, I could do these challenging things and, and succeed. And working in the lab, I learned how to make things, how to, how to look at a problem, work through to solutions. And by the way, you know, coming from physics, spaceflight is so much explained by physics. You know, how you get to space, what the orbits are, how all the, you know, everything is so multi-disciplined, really. But physics is at the heart of understanding how it all works. So I just really felt like coming out of here, it really prepared me for that kind of a career.

Moderator: [00:04:10] Ok. That is, that is awesome. And so Jordyn, my next question is for you. With the Burke Lab, you’re working on a project that is partially funded by NASA. Can you tell us a bit about your research and why NASA is invested in it?

Jordyn Lucas: [00:04:21] Yeah. So, I think I’m going to first start and answer your question about NASA, because NASA has so many varied interests. And, you know, part of one of those interests is trying to understand how life evolved and originated here on Earth, and how we can use that understanding to maybe guide us to find life elsewhere. So what I’m specifically looking at is a model for how life originated. And it’s called the RNA world theory. So like you kind of said in the intro, we work with this molecule called RNA, and it looks a lot like DNA and it can kind of do what DNA does, but it can also do what our proteins do. So proteins are catalyzing reactions and making or breaking down molecules that are key to our cell survival. And RNA is a really versatile molecule because it can kind of do both of these jobs. So this whole model that I’m describing basically has RNA as the progenitor molecule of life where you would have an RNA system where RNA molecules are storing genetic information and they’re catalyzing these reactions. And what we’re really trying to understand is what are the limitations of RNA and what kinds of RNAs would you have to have to work together to basically create that very minimal first RNA cell that then could ultimately evolve into what we’re more familiar with today. So specifically, what we’re looking at is an accessory that RNA can utilize. So the accessory we’re interested in is coenzyme A. And it can sit on the front of the RNA. And kind of an analogy I have for this is that if I handed you a piece of paper and no pen and told you to write me an essay in 20 minutes, you probably couldn’t do it. But if I give you the pen, you can do it. And it wasn’t that you weren’t able to write the essay. It’s just that you didn’t have the proper tool. And so, we kind of think of RNA as being the same way. If you give it the proper tools, it can do so much more. And with that pen, you could write an essay, but you can also draw a picture or use the pen to reach small places that you can’t get your hand into. So it’s very versatile and we’re really trying to understand where we can take RNA with this co-A. And kind of a dual application is that we know the co-A RNA still exists in cells today. And so I think that’s part of the reason why NASA’s interested in this, because not only is it applicable to understanding kind of the origin of life more, it’s also applicable to modern biology. So, what is the co-A RNA doing in our cells today and do those properties, could they be applied to how, maybe, the co-A RNA was working in a prebiotic context? And I think that it’s really exciting to kind of be on the forefront of this and just trying to understand, you know, what are the capabilities of RNA and if the RNA world theory is really plausible.

Moderator: [00:07:18] Let me first say that’s a, that’s an amazing metaphor. That made everything make sense to me. So I completley get it.

Jordyn Lucas: [00:07:24] I’m glad it helped.

Moderator: [00:07:26] And so, for Chancellor Cartwright, Professor Godwin and Jordyn show how the Mizzou community isn’t just global, but also interstellar. Why are Mizzou grads uniquely equipped to handle such an important career trajectory?

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:07:39] You know, that’s a great question, and that I think about this a lot. You know, why is it that so many people from Mizzou go out and are successful? We have a lot of students who’ve left, alumni who become CEOs of companies. Disproportionately so compared to other institutions, and I think it’s something about the culture. And I think Professor Godwin said it and I think you heard it in what Jordan said. There’s an expectation that you’re going to work hard, that you’re going to actually become a master of the, the topic. But then how do you apply it? How do you use it? And how does that then allow you to be innovative? Right? So a lot of being successful is being prepared. It’s making sure you understand your material, but not just understanding your subject, but how your subject may be applicable to other things. Right? You heard it from Professor Godwin, that physics allowed her – certainly – to understand, how do you, how does space travel work? Right? How do you get there? And that knowledge helped her to be successful in being an astronaut. I love that, I think you said this, Professor Godwin, I think you mentioned that you learned how to learn.

Linda Godwin: [00:08:56] Yeah.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:08:56] And that’s important because it’s a challenge, it’s something that I think is a part of the culture here: a commitment to education, a commitment to having our students understand that it’s beyond what we teach you in a class. Jordyn said this. It’s beyond that. It’s also that ability for you to take that next step. I didn’t mean take the next step out into space, but I can say that I guess. But, yes, I think it’s this concept of learning to learn. And Professor Godwin, if you wanted to say more about that, I’d love to hear it.

Linda Godwin: [00:09:29] Well, it is. You know, and I know that Mizzou is, because I’ve been involved in some meetings on that and, you know, in my time here, is really interested in creating the community here for students that makes them all feel like they have a place here and they are welcomed. And that is part of this learning how to learn. You have to feel comfortable where you are and included and important. And I think Mizzou is good at doing that. And then you have, you know, I think I had my experience with my professors and my peers were the things that really help you learn how to navigate through all of that.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:10:02] And I, and I think there’s a true commitment. You know, we talk about our core values of respect, responsibility, discovery and excellence. And I feel that is something that we are committed to here. Again, you are never going to be successful if, if you don’t feel that people respect you. Right? Because that respect gives you the ability to take some chances. Right? And then you need to know that there is a responsibility and that you’ve, you’ve had this opportunity and it’s up to you now to to leverage that into other things. So, I think our faculty, our staff, our students really commit to those principles. And I think it makes a big difference for them as they go out into their careers.

Moderator: [00:10:45] Most definitely. So another follow-up question for you, Chancellor Cartwright. Professor Godwin came to NASA through physics, and Jordyn through biochemistry. In different ways, both are furthering our knowledge of space and our own planet. How does Mizzou encourage researchers to think comprehensively, not just about space research, but about problems across disciplines?

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:11:04] Yeah. When I think about where the future is, right, I’ve been saying this quite a bit lately, is that, when you think about when people started working on nanotechnology, there was a comment that, you know, there’s plenty of room at the bottom, by Feynman, who’s a physicist. And it was this opportunity to really think about physics differently and what could be possible. Of course, space and getting into space was something that started before that. And now there’s, of course, renewed interest again in some of the concepts around that. But when I think about the future, to me, the future is about those boundaries. The future is about how do we bring together chemistry, biochemistry, and physics, and biology and engineering and all of the disciplines to think about problems that are so challenging, so complex that no one discipline may have all the tools. Right? It may not be just a pen that’s needed. It might be something more. And those new tools will be developed, I believe, at those boundaries between those disciplines. And I, I believe there is incredible beauty at the boundaries and so much opportunity for us to come together and learn each other’s languages, different disciplines. I say this a lot, different disciplines have different languages and different cultures. And if we can learn how to speak those languages and cultures here, we have a big advantage in that we are a comprehensive research university that has all of those different disciplines here. We can bring them together and really tackle grand challenges that no other place has the opportunity or ability to really tackle.

Jordyn Lucas: [00:12:54] Can I add something?

Moderator: [00:12:55] Of course.

Jordyn Lucas: [00:12:57] Yeah. I think, I really, really like your point because, you know, I think so much success in science and research is really that interdisciplinary aspect. And part of what drew me to this university was that I saw that when I came here. And, you know, in origins especially, it’s vital, you know, origins of life research, you know, you have to think about not just the biochemistry, but the geology. What was the landscape like, and the atmosphere, and what was the concentrations of salts in the oceans? So, you know, it’s really, it’s wonderful because I think that the science we do here really breeds that interdisciplinary, and it also strengthens our community in a way.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:13:36] That’s good to hear.

Moderator: [00:13:39] And so, a follow-up question for you, Jordyn. How does your work here at Mizzou change our understanding of our place in the universe? So basically, going off of kind of what you kind of started to say.

Jordyn Lucas: [00:13:48] Yeah. So, you know, kind of like what I was describing previously. You know, our work is trying to really test the strength of this model of the origin of life and how life originated. And, you know, it’s really interesting because if we find something really compelling, I think it’s very telling not just about how life originated here on Earth, but how it could originate elsewhere. And this work is so humbling and so exciting because we’re really on the forefront of, you know, trying to figure out what the limitations of life are, you know, what are the minimal components that you need? What are the most strenuous conditions that you can have? And, you know, even in the last, you know, 50 or 100 years, our understanding of this has radically changed. I mean, for example, you could look at the hot springs in Yellowstone and, you know, 50 years ago, probably no one thought anything could live there because that’s a temperature that cooks most things. And yet we know now that there are bacteria thriving, very happy there. So I think it’s really, really interesting right now to be in this field because I feel like we’re constantly pushing that boundary further and further and really trying to see, you know, well, how far can we take, you know, these molecules and really kind of brew up a potion for life.

Moderator: [00:15:03] I like that. And so Professor Godwin, both Chancellor Cartwright and Jordyn have talked about the distinct environment Mizzou offers. After almost four decades away from the university, what made you want to come back?

Linda Godwin: [00:15:17] You know, I still have a vivid memory of when I finished here. You know, I left here in 1980 with my PhD in physics, to go to NASA. And I still remember driving out of town and being really, really sad. And I mean this university had a hold on me, you know, that I kind of hated to go. I had, again, glossing over the hard work. You know, the better memories tend to, I think, you know, expand in our minds. But I really hated to leave. And my younger self would not have been looking 31 years down the road. But I wonder what, how I would have felt if I thought, “Oh, I’ll be back in 31 years.” You know, almost exactly. So, you know, just in general, the university was always very important to me. And I kept my ties going and I came back for various things. We have a lot of alumni that do that, including, you know, the department, you know, that I’m back in now. We have our leaders coming this fall in a few weeks. So there is that pull to here in general. And then there was this thing that I didn’t want to be finished. You know, you always want to keep doing something and looking forward. And there’s something about the challenge of academia. It was a reinvention to come back and teach some classes and to do some other things here. And that was a lot of work. But, to come back and connect with students again. And to see, you know, I’m so impressed, you know, today to hear of Jordyn’s work and just really have these brilliant students back here. And to get to come back, to have that opportunity, and, you know, mingle with them for a while and maybe talk to some, maybe influence a few if I’m lucky. That was the pull to come back. And to this particular campus, you know, just because it was my great experience here in the past and the fact that they offered me this opportunity, which was fantastic. Thank you.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:16:55] We’re the ones that are lucky to have you back here. You know, one thing I’d add to that is it’s reflective in what we see in the behavior of others. Right? As Ronald Boain recently gave 1.2, 1.3 million dollars to the Department of Physics and Astronomy because of again, because of his, and he was also at NASA.

Linda Godwin: [00:17:17] And he also came back to Columbia.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:17:18] He also came back to Columbia. That’s the interesting part to it.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:17:22] And so I think it shows that this connection to the institution stays for life. And, and recognizing how much of an impact it had on his life. Right? And I think you heard that from Professor Godwin, the same thing, it had an impact on her life, and wanting to give back. And I think that’s also one of those core things that I find remarkable about people who graduate from this institution is this, this commitment to giving back to society. And that’s, again, something that I think is just core to this institution.

Moderator: [00:17:51] I think the funniest thing is sometimes when you’re a student here who has been in college, you want to be done so badly. So you always feel like, “I’m not coming back. I don’t want to give anything back to this university.” And then as soon as it’s time for you to leave, it’s kind of like, “Wow, I guess I do kind of miss it. I guess I do want to give back to something that was instrumental for me.” So a final question for everybody. And we’ll start with Jordyn. So, what is one question that keeps you going about our world, outer space and our future?

Jordyn Lucas: [00:18:19] That is a tough one, because, you know, it’s like, how do I just say one question? I think for me, it’s really about seeing where technology and research are going to take us in the next upcoming years. I mean, there’s so many projects. I mean, not just at NASA, but especially at NASA, that are about to take off that are really going to just open our eyes to what else is going on in the universe and in our solar system. And I’m just really looking forward to seeing, you know, what new discoveries we’re gonna make and then how can we apply those discoveries to what we already know and what we already have. And how does that basically better our own research? So I think that for me, is the most exciting aspect of this.

Linda Godwin: [00:19:00] Well it’s, that’s tough to top. I mean, that was a really good answer. You know, I think – it’s funny – one of my perks at working with NASA was I got to travel more around the world and see people. People do that in other jobs, too. I mean, you need to do it whenever you can. So, and being in orbit, which is still different than being there on the ground. But, the fact that we could circle our planet in 90 minutes made it seem more connected and more together. And then one of my flights was an earth science mission where we were looking down, on my first flight we deployed a gamma ray observatory that’s looking out, you know, so I don’t know. Somehow I just want us to come together as a planet to better our future and to learn what’s out there. And, and I think a lot of that starts with an education that includes learning about other people and doing other things and the diversity in life. And I don’t know where I’m going with all of this exactly, but I think in some way it meanders back here to Mizzou, you know, which is where they try to start all of that way of thinking, I believe, in our students. So I just want to see us figure out how to work together. Interdisciplinary, inner, you know, inter-nations. The International Space Station is the largest international collaboration, probably, that’s for a peaceful purpose. And I think that will be one of its greatest legacies. So I just, you know, the whole working together concept.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:20:18] Well, Professor Godwin stole my answer. Actually, I’ll say it a little bit differently. And that is, you know, one thing that I’m very focused on is, are the boundaries. Right? How do we how do we work at the boundaries? And to me, it’s about how do we create an environment where we are able to translate easily between disciplines? And what I mean by that is that for us to really see the progress that they’ve been talking about, and for us to change the world, we need to be able to more easily communicate with each other what it is that we’re working on and to understand better what the other discipline or collaborator is bringing to the table. And the challenge right now is, is we still have those language issues between disciplines and the cultural differences between disciplines. And I think here at Mizzou, we could address that. We could think about, how do we how do we cross those boundaries? And I always say this, that if you think about different countries and how you get to learn and learn different languages, you need those translators. And the great thing about a university is we have translators all around us: the students. They are remarkable at being able to connect across disciplines, across faculties, research areas, and they are able to work in a lab for one faculty member and then can think about, maybe, what new technology would be useful to their research and then they can seek it out through their networks around, among students. And I think that’s a remarkable thing. How do we amplify that? How do we make that so that we can then consider the grand challenges of society? And I think then we can do all the things that Professor Godwin and Jordyn were talking about.

Moderator: [00:22:15] Of course. Of course, and time will tell. And I think that’s a great way to end this episode. And I want to thank you all for being with us today, again. And of course, now there’s just one more thing to do before we leave.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:22:26] Everybody’s ready.

Moderator: [00:22:29] Where do you find black holes?

Linda Godwin: [00:22:35] Is this a serious question? Or is this, this is a joke isn’t it?

Moderator: [00:22:39] I would advise not to give the most educated answer, becasue it’s not that.

Linda Godwin: [00:22:49] I don’t know. A washing machine where all the socks go. I have no idea.

Moderator: [00:22:53] In black socks! That’s the answer. In black socks.

Everyone: [00:22:55] (Laughing)

Moderator: [00:23:03] Our audio engineer is Aaron Hay. Our featured music is composed by MU master’s student Niko D. Schroeder and performed by the Donald Sinta Quartet. You can find more information about Niko, the Quartet and their piece on the Inside Mizzou webpage. Make sure to join us next time to stay on top of what’s happening at Mizzou. Thanks for joining us on this episode. See you around the Columns!