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Human Biologist Mallika Sarma has No Space for Excuses

Mallika Sarma pictured inside helicopter.
Mallika Sarma, Ph.D., aboard a helicopter in 2015. Sarma studies human resiliency in extreme environments, including space.

For scientist Mallika Sarma, the notion that science is apolitical, objective, or has nothing to do with the people you work with is “total garbage.”

She underscores this by sharing her favorite story about Sally Ride, who went on to become the first American woman in space. That Ride was asked if 100 tampons would be enough for two weeks in space prior to boarding the Challenger in 1984 shows Sarma, “You can’t only have young white men who are making the decisions.”

The story, and her own experiences, have propelled her journey as a human biologist studying human adaptation and acclimation to extreme and novel environments.

“The hill that I die on is the need for inclusivity and diversity in science and human exploration,” says Sarma, an Indian-American AAAS Member and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Johns Hopkins University.

That’s why she’s a mentor and lecturer for the Houston Space Center’s Girls STEM Pathway program and part of the Increasing Diversity in Evolutionary Anthropological Sciences subcommittee through the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. The subcommittee covers training, public outreach and mentoring that targets underrepresented racial groups in the field.

“Usually when there’s a public lecture that’s targeted toward kids, I’m all for it,” she says. “I’m totally game because those are the ones we want to reach.”

Sarma works in the university’s human spaceflight lab and her research centers on how humans’ stress response system is related to neurovestibular adaptation and how that, in turn, might be linked to both resilience in long duration spaceflight and long-term human habitation on other planets.

One way to think about vestibular adaptation is in how gravity is a given on Earth. But when you’re in a spaceflight or doing a spacewalk, you don’t experience gravity in the same way. People float around on space shuttles, lose their forks and food, and more. Microgravity situations like this confuse your vestibular system, which tells you where gravity is and how you should examine your world. Take the gravity away and humans feel dizzy and not quite right, Sarma says. It can impact how you walk, judge distance and directions, and if you’ll fall over.

“On Mars, if you fall, you puncture your space suit and die,” Sarma says, explaining that the suit would lose whatever oxygen reserves it has. “It’s a real possibility and something to be worried about.”

Her paper, currently under review, should be published in 2021; it details research Sarma did for her doctorate dissertation at the University of Notre Dame. It theorized that women’s biology is more suitable than a man’s to extreme, long-duration challenges in the environment. Her initial findings show women were able to spend less energy as they acclimated to the extreme conditions over time.

Working with the National Outdoor Leadership School, Sarma took measurements and samples from 79 people while they went on 90-day expeditions through the American West. The grueling trip had them carrying heavy backpacks as they wound their way through deserts, rivers, and mountains in part to learn leadership skills. She met them at various points of the trip to gather samples of their blood, saliva, and fingernails. She also hooked them up to activity and heart-rate monitors to examine their physical activity levels and their energy level expenditure. 

The physiological data Sarma collected suggests women are adapting to highly stressful environments better than men, a welcome development for her.

“As a feminist researcher that works in neuroendocrinology, it was really exciting to me because historically, a lot of the research that has been done on women has focused on menstruation, motherhood and being pregnant, which are all extremely important things … but it’s frustrating to look at things like endurance and extreme environment activities, whether that is mountain climbing or trying to summit Everest, they are usually only done on men,” she says.

This conclusion supports data recently published in another 2019 study that examined runners participating in the 140-day transcontinental Race Across the U.S., combining that data with other long-duration, energy-intensive activities, such as pregnancy.

“Your ability to adapt, like we’re not like Play-Doh, we can’t do everything, but we’re pretty freaking good at it,” Sarma says. “That’s part of the thing that makes humans really amazing.”

Right now, Sarma is looking into how the human body responds to certain social activity and whether physical performance changes if you’re communicating with a team in person, versus over the Internet, and how that relates to spaceflight. Testing is expected to begin in January, and she hopes to have the beginning of the pilot data by February.

Mallika Sarma smiles.
Sarma pictured in Paris, France. Image by Brendan Croom.

Sarma is eager to connect her work in human endurance to space exploration. As a child, she loved Dr. Mae Jemison, and Leland Melvin, two retired, African-American astronauts. AAAS Member Jemison made history in 1992 as the first Black woman to travel in space, which for Sarma made space feel so accessible.

Their feats helped her see what amazing things humans can do and be capable of. She has applied that same thinking to her work, and she’s hoping citizens and scientists approach this bold, new chapter with care and ethical considerations. As humans go beyond Earth, they should take the best of what they have to offer, not violence or colonialism. 

“It’s easy to think of Apollo and the Moon landing, but things have changed a lot since then, where spaceflight is an international pursuit,” Sarma says. “And that’s a legacy I hope we will bring forward. It is a task for all humans on Earth.”



Lenore T. Adkins