Around the Pier: Alumna Heading for the Stars


Looking back, Jessica Meir thinks she was about five years old when the idea of being an astronaut became a dream of hers. Meir is now waking up to the idea that the dream is reality after she was selected earlier this month as one of eight new NASA astronaut candidates.

“It still feels incredibly surreal that my dream has actually come true,” she said.

Meir was chosen for the extremely competitive program from the second-largest number of applications—more than 6,000—in NASA’s history. The 2013 selections are NASA’s 21st class since the first group was chosen in 1959. She is one of eight NASA astronaut candidates “who will help the agency push the boundaries of exploration and travel to new destinations in the solar system, including an asteroid and Mars,” NASA said in a news release announcing the 2013 astronaut candidates.

“These new space explorers (were) asked to join NASA because they know we’re doing big, bold things here—developing missions to go farther into space than ever before,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a NASA news release. “They’re excited about the science we’re doing on the International Space Station and our plan to launch from U.S. soil on spacecraft built by American companies. And they’re ready to help lead the first human mission to an asteroid and then on to Mars.”

“It’s incredibly encouraging to witness yet another UC San Diego graduate reach a position of such prominence and importance for America’s space exploration initiatives,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “Like Megan McArthur before her, Jessica Meir serves as an inspiration to all current and future Tritons that national and international leadership roles are well within your grasp with UC San Diego education and training.”

Meir earned a doctorate in marine physiology from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego in 2009 and credits her education and training at Scripps, as well as the mentorship she received, as instrumental in her career.

“My Ph.D. training at Scripps certainly helped me prepare for this new adventure, from the experience I gained in critical thinking to the operational skills I acquired on the sea ice of the Antarctic and the beaches of California during my field work,” said Meir. “I have been incredibly fortunate to have benefited from an amazing run of mentors throughout my career, including Scripps’s Paul Ponganis and Jerry Kooyman, individuals who are not only amazing scientists, but amazing people as well. The influence that these individuals have made on my life both professionally and personally is invaluable.”

Meir joins Scripps alumna Megan McArthur, a NASA astronaut who journeyed aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2009, in selection to NASA’s astronaut training program.

“We are looking forward to Jessica becoming a part of the astronaut corps,” said McArthur. “Her education and experiences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, along with her many other accomplishments, have prepared her well for the challenging adventure she will be undertaking here at NASA.”

While at Scripps, Meir worked with research physiologist Ponganis of Scripps’s Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine to study how animals such as emperor penguins and elephant seals are capable of conducting remarkably long dives.

“In her Ph.D. research, Jessica investigated the physiological and biochemical adaptations underlying the diving physiology and hypoxic (low oxygen) tolerance of deep diving emperor penguins and elephant seals,” said Ponganis. “Such research is relevant both to understanding the dive behavior and ecology of these species and to biomedical applications such as minimization of tissue damage during heart attacks and strokes. The principles of diving physiology are also relevant to avoidance of decompression sickness, a potential problem for astronauts during extravehicular activity in space.”

A native of Caribou, Maine, Meir earned a bachelor’s degree in 1999 from Brown University, attended the International Space University in France, and supported human physiology experiments at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. After obtaining her Ph.D. at Scripps Oceanography, Meir investigated hypoxia tolerance in the high-flying bar-headed goose as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

She is currently an assistant professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston.

“I’m incredibly excited about this opportunity to be a part of NASA’s human spaceflight program,” said Meir. “I’ve been very passionate about scientific outreach and education through my past research, and am thrilled to have another avenue to help inspire the next generation of scientists and explorers.”

– Mario C. Aguilera

Related Image Gallery: Alumna Heading for the Stars

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