I came from a small town with big dreams. I grew up in Bellville, Texas — the kind of place where cattle outnumber people. Growing up, I listened to stories about NASA from my uncle, a mechanical engineer who worked for several NASA contractors throughout the years. After preschool dreams of being a cheerleader for the Houston Oilers, I set my sights on becoming an astronaut. That dream gained momentum in fifth grade, when Weekly Reader magazine featured a story on the future space station. At that moment, I decided I would pursue a degree in chemistry.
That goal was solidified when, after years of saving money to go, I attended Space Academy at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.. I was not disappointed. I found a place where I belonged; where others were as passionate about space as I. Though math and science did not come easily to me, Space Camp assigned me to the mission specialist tract, and for the first time, I truly believed that I could be a scientist.
Despite the somewhat limited resources at a small, rural school, I was fortunate to have the support of teachers, family, and friends. I was blessed to be one of the girls who was never told she couldn’t do it, but that didn’t mean it was always easy. When I headed off to Texas A&M University in the fall of 1996, I had never used the internet. My first chemistry class required that homework be completed and submitted online — I felt very much like a fish out of water. However, hard work, dedication, and many late nights at the Kettle with study groups got me through! During summer and winter breaks, I returned to Space Camp as an Advanced Academy counselor. I can only hope that my time there inspired even one person as much as I had been inspired.
When it came time for graduate school, I evaluated the jobs I thought NASA would need for future space exploration. At the time, a large focus of research was on life sciences, and I began looking for integrated biomedical science programs. This focus led me back to Alabama, where I began a Ph.D. program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I was fortunate to begin my graduate work in the Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering where I supported the dynamically controlled protein crystal growth Space Shuttle flight experiment. My dissertation work focused on changes in mesenchymal stem cell differentiation in a cell culture model of microgravity. Mesenchymal stem cells are adult cells capable of differentiating into bone, cartilage, or fat. We found that cells cultured in normal conditions and given nutrients needed to become bone did just that; whereas cells cultured in a rotating culture vessel, which simulates some aspects of microgravity, became fat cells instead. We determined that this was due, at least in part, to changes in the cellular structure (cytoskeleton). Part of this work was performed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center under the Graduate Student Researcher Program.
When I completed graduate school, I hoped to come straight to a job at NASA, but life doesn’t always work out the way we plan. The loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew occurred about a year before I completed my doctoral degree. With no shuttle flying, there were limited science opportunities. Needing a break from the lab, I returned to Texas and worked a brief stint as a scientific writer before being hired by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Although I had no formal training in toxicology, my scientific background was sufficient for them to train me in the art of risk assessment. Although I enjoyed my position there, I was honest about my true desire to work for NASA. Knowing this, my TCEQ supervisor introduced me to my current NASA supervisor, who, as it happens, was also a former toxicologist at TCEQ. When a position became available in the JSC Space Toxicology Group a short time later, I was able to fulfill my dream of working for NASA.
During my five years here, I have been afforded some amazing opportunities – from spending five weeks on an uninhabited island in the Canadian arctic performing research to participating as a human test subject for a parabolic flight in the “vomit comet” to being honored to represent women at NASA. It has truly been a blessing for me.
So what would I say to a girl who wants to work at NASA? Dream BIG: You can do anything you put your mind to regardless of where you are from. Secondly, make the most of every opportunity. Although your path may not be as direct as you might hope, you can and will get there if you are determined. Finally, the best advice I’ve received during my career is to make friends with everyone you meet. Engage those around you, regardless of their position. You never know how someone might help you on your path or how you might be able to help someone else.
Dr. Valerie Meyers was exposed to the idea of human spaceflight at family gatherings where her uncle, who worked at Link Flight Simulation in Houston, talked about his job developing simulators to train astronauts. Her personal journey to NASA began in fifth grade when an article in Weekly Reader magazine mentioned NASA would be looking for people with doctorate degrees in chemistry, physics, mathematics, and astronomy to work on a space station they were developing. It was then she decided she would pursue a degree in chemistry with the hopes of one day working at NASA. It was the encouragement and guidance of family and teachers and the self-confidence gained at Space Camp that led her on a path to turn her dream into a reality. Today, Dr. Meyers works in the Space Toxicology Office at Johnson Space Center in Houston. She performs toxicity hazard assessments of the system chemicals and the payloads carried by spacecraft, and develops standards for chemical concentrations on spacecraft to ensure astronauts are protected from toxic exposures. While at NASA, Dr. Meyers has had some unique research opportunities, including a simulated planetary exploration mission on Devon Island, an uninhabited island in the Canadian Arctic that NASA has used to imitate lunar/Martian missions. During the mission she conducted a five-week study of the impacts of isolation and variations in the light/dark cycle on the body’s immune system. Dr. Meyers has said she recognizes how a seemingly small event, such as a chance article in a classroom newsletter, can inspire and change the course of a child’s life, just as it did for her, and that she hopes her time spent as a laboratory facilitator for middle school children and as a counselor at Space Camp may have provided that same moment for someone else. Dr. Meyers holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Texas A&M University and a doctorate in pathology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She is also a Diplomate of the American Board of Toxicology. Her notable recognitions include Space Camp Hall of Fame inductee in 2011, the JSC Director’s Innovation Group Achievement Award for serving as co-chair of the center’s 2012 Innovation Day, and selection as a delegate for the 2013 American-German Young Leaders Conference.