Exploring the Ultimate Frontier: Science in Space

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering and a professor of medical sciences, is one of the first seven members to be selected to the board of directors of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). She joins an accomplished group of academic and scientific leaders who will help direct CASIS, the nonprofit organization that promotes and manages research on board the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory.

“I am really thrilled and honored to serve as one of the science directors on the CASIS board,” says Vunjak-Novakovic, who is also the director of Columbia Engineering’s Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering. “Our work will be as unique as the International Space Station itself, a ‘laboratory’ that lacks gravity and thus allows us to study the effect of this omnipresent force on all kinds of biological and physical processes. We will be working hand-in-hand with NASA to develop a program for the ISS that will push the limits of science and lead to the development of exciting commercial technologies.”

Vunjak-Novakovic is especially interested in space experiments with proteins, cells, and tissues that cannot be done on Earth, and “can serve,” she says, “as a basis for developing new and curative treatment modalities.”

This isn’t her first foray into outer space. Vunjak-Novakovic actually has a history of conducting space experiments, designing cell culture hardware for the International Space Station and serving on the Space Life Sciences Council for NASA to advise on space experimentation. From 1996 to 1997, she was a co-lead (with Lisa Freed from MIT) of the longest cell culture study in space, aboard the old "Mir" space station. For more than four and a half months, their team investigated the effects of the actual microgravity of space on tissue-engineered cartilage cultured in a bioreactor, to explore factors that lead to weakening of skeletal tissue in astronauts during long-term missions. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with a commentary (both in PDF format).

From 1996 to 2003, Vunjak-Novakovic also served as a scientific lead (for MIT) in the combined Payload Systems-MIT team that developed the automated modular cell culture system for the International Space Station.

“Both projects were a fantastic experience for figuring out how to do science in space with minimal resources, operating time, and energy, things that force you to be creative in many ways,” she notes. 

Vunjak-Novakovic received her B.S., M.S., and Ph.D., all in Chemical Engineering, from the University of Belgrade, in Serbia. She is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (2000) and of the Biomedical Engineering Society (2012). She was the first female engineer to give the Director’s Lecture at the National Institutes of Health (2007), and was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame (2008) "for developing biological substitutes to restore, maintain or improve tissue function." In 2009, she was elected to the New York Academy of Sciences. Vunjak-Novakovic is a recipient of the Clemson Award given by the Biomaterials Society, and two Space Act Awards from NASA, in addition to other prestigious recognitions. In 2012, she was elected to the Academia Europaea, the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, and the National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest professional distinctions awarded to an engineer.

“I love engineering for the challenges it makes us face, and engineering something in space is certainly pushing these challenges to an extreme,” she says. “I often look into the night sky to find the International Space Station moving over the horizon, and think about the amazing things that can happen in the years to come. I feel privileged to be a member of the CASIS Board, a most accomplished and enthusiastic group of experts for science in space.”

The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) was selected by NASA in July 2011 to maximize use of the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory through 2020. CASIS is dedicated to supporting and accelerating innovations and new discoveries that will enhance the health and wellbeing of people and our planet.

In 2005, Congress designated the U.S. portion of the International Space Station as the nation's newest national laboratory to maximize its use for improving life on Earth, promoting collaboration among diverse users and advancing STEM education. This unique laboratory environment is available for use by other U.S. government agencies and by academic and private institutions, providing access to the permanent microgravity setting, vantage point in low earth orbit and varied environments of space. The ISS National Laboratory Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center currently facilitates research initiatives on board the station’s National Lab, but management of America’s only in-orbit laboratory is transitioning to CASIS.

—by Holly Evarts

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