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Gerald Sonnenfeld  –  immunologist
"The most important thing for me is to always be open to new ideas."
How were you originally motivated to become an immunologist?

I committed very early on, in high school. I went to high school in New York City. I had always had an interest in science, and was fortunate enough to pass the entrance examination for the Bronx High School of Science. This high school was, and remains, a unique jewel in the New York City educational system. It gives special preparation and encouragement to those high school students who think they might wish to have careers in science. I was fortunate to be able to take a course in laboratory identification of microbes, and at that moment, I knew that some aspect of microbiology was for me.

Later in college and graduate school, the area of host defenses against microbes and cancer (immunology) was the most interesting for me. My entry into working on "Space Immunology" was just by chance, which proved to me that one never knows where opportunities can arise. When I started my postdoctoral fellowship in Infectious Diseases (for researchers, a postdoctoral fellowship is the equivalent of residency training for physicians) in 1975 at Stanford University, there were some great changes occurring in microbiology and immunology. The concept of "cloning", or recombinant DNA technology, was just emerging. It was thought that all cloning would be done at "P-4", now known as Biosafety Level 4. What this meant was that it was believed that for safety, all recombinant DNA work would have to be done at the highest possible safety level. While this was proven to be unnecessary, during the mid-1970s this was a hot issue for debate.

Dr. Adrian Mandel, who was in charge of microbiology at the NASA Ames Research Center, was dealing with the "Lunar" Laboratory. This was the facility that was used for the examination of the "moon rock" samples returned by the Apollo missions from the moon, when there was concern that moon microbes might also be returned to Earth with the rocks. There turned out to be no moon microbes brought back, but this laboratory was equipped pretty close to P-4 standards. Dr. Mandel, with thoughts of saving money for the Government, wondered if the Lunar Laboratory could be converted into a P-4 laboratory for recombinant DNA technology and save the building of a new laboratory. He asked the Head of Infectious Diseases at Stanford, Dr. Thomas Merigan, it someone could be sent down to look the lab over and see what could be done. Since I was the newest fellow, Dr. Merigan sent me with some objections on my part, as I had no interest in this research area.

Although it became unnecessary to convert the Lunar Laboratory to P-4 conditions for most recombinant DNA technology, I became very interested in problems of space immunology. Almost twenty-five years later, after participating in space immunology experiments in about nine Space Shuttle flights and three Russian Biosatellites, and publishing numerous reports of the experiments and ground-based model experiments, I would say that trip to see the Lunar Laboratory was perhaps the best and most profitable afternoon I ever spent in my entire career.

What can you share about your creative process?

The most important thing for me is to always be open to new ideas. If I hadn't had that attitude, I would never have become involved in space research. A scientist must have an open mind, seriously consider every opportunity that occurs, and then use the scientific method to approach the problem. It is also best to focus your efforts into areas where you can carry out the work better than anyone else. This is what scientists often call "finding your niche".

I also like to build on the previous work that I and others have done. It is important to know what others have done and use the information in designing your experiments. For example, if I know that others have found that certain immunological functions of space travelers are changed after flight, I can use that information to come up with an experiment to see if I can prevent those changes from happening in the next group of space travelers. It is also important to let other people know what you have discovered. Many young scientists hesitate to make oral presentations or to write scientific papers based on their findings. Remember, penicillin is a fantastic antibiotic, but it would be useless if we didn't know about the research findings that showed what it could do. So, I always think it is very important to present and publish my work.

What ideas do you have for a future community on Mars?

Since I have spent most of my career working on space flight effects on immune responses and how that could compromise our ability to explore, the idea of a future community or Mars is both very exciting and a major challenge to me. Any future Mars colony will be a long way from home and must be, for the most part, self-sufficient with regard to medical care. An emergency will not be able to be sent back to a hospital on Earth simply because the distance is so great it would take months to make the trip!

There are several things that could affect immune responses and resistance to infection and cancer, both on the trip to Mars and in the new colony on the surface of Mars. These include: 1) changes in the force of gravity in flight (no or very low gravity) and on the surface of Mars (reduced gravity); 2) the stress of making the trip and being in the Mars colony in a relatively isolated environment with an international crew from different countries; 3) exposure to types of radiation never seen before on Earth or in low Earth orbit used by the Space Shuttle and "Mir"; 4) possible "new" microbes that might be on Mars. There are likely to be additional factors that we havenŐt even thought of at the present time. These factors might produce a situation where the space travelers and colonists would be at greater risk for development of infections or cancer than their counterparts who remained on Earth.

In order to have a successful colony with healthy inhabitants, we must be prepared to prevent these immunological changes from happening and/or be prepared to treat anything that may happen to very much limit any negative effects that might occur. The Mars colony must have state-of-the-art medical treatment facilities. The colony must also include a fantastic, futuristic research facility for medical studies, including immunology, that will allow us to survive and prosper on Mars and, also, to move forward from Mars to explore the Universe.

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