Meet: Joe Bielitzki
Chief Veterinary Officer for NASA
What I do:
My job title is Chief Veterinary Officer for NASA, which means that I work here at Ames and anywhere else that we have animals. My responsibilities are to make sure that the animals are always properly taken care of, experience minimal pain and distress if they have to experience pain and distress, and that everything we do follows the laws, rules and regulations that the government has established for animal care. My job also involves working with researchers that use animals in their projects. I provide expert consultation on things like anesthesia, husbandry (the breeding and raising of animals) and nutrition. In some cases I help with experimental design when an experiment involves training animals, conditioning animals or certain surgical procedures. The job is quite diverse and I do a lot of different things. I seem to get a lot of non-specific problems that people don't know how to handle and because I work for NASA headquarters, I can often cut through red tape and deal with issues that other people can't get on track.
I am also responsible for the animals while they are flying as far as their health and well being. We have two other veterinarians that are going to be on this mission. Rick Linnehan, who aside from being Payload Commander, is the inflight attending veterinarian. This means that when he is working in the shuttle, he is responsible for the animals, he doesn't have to talk to me about problems. We wouldn't fly a veterinarian if we wanted him to have to call home and ask permission about everything. The other veterinarian is Alex Dunlap who is an alternate Payload Specialist, Alex is also a physician. He has been named Duty Veterinarian which means he can approve changes in animal protocols during the mission. He is intimately familiar with everything that they are doing. He is an ideal person for this and will spend a lot of time in communication with the orbiter. He can also deal with other animal problems if they occur on the shuttle. If he needs help I am going to be available for questions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the duration of the flight.
My job has to do with societal benefits. At NASA the job has to do with being able to identify the risks of space travel for the astronauts. If we are going to fly humans then we should know what's going to make them sick, how sick they are going to be and how we can treat them if an when they get sick. Most of that work is going to be tested and developed with animals, so the animal models are real important. Veterinarians are the first people you look to when you are looking at new treatments or new medicines or new ways to deal with the problems that the astronauts might have, because much of the early work will be done in animal models.
My Career Journey
I didn't decide on this career, this career decided on me, at least as far as NASA goes. Rick Linnehan and I have been friends for a long time and when it became apparent that this position was going to be open, Rick called me and asked me about applying for it. My expertise has been in laboratory animal medicine, specifically with non-human primates. If you ask anyone, they will tell you I'm a monkey person. I'm a monkey doctor by training and experience. When this job came looking for me, I was working as a veterinarian at a university. It's a great job, it's very diverse and it puts me in contact with a lot of incredibly smart, creative people.
I didn't do anything to prepare for this job except that I had the experience and the qualifications NASA was looking for. One of the things they were looking for was someone who could also represent the Animal Research Program and Care Program to the public and to the professional community, so I do that too, which is a little bit different than what most people think this job is. I am kind of a political, paper pushing, administrative veterinarian at this point. I see very few animals unless there is a problem, I can do the clinical medicine, I did it for 20 years and I'm actually kind of happy with the change in responsibility. It's been a pleasant break to deal with administrative problems and program and policy development.
Likes/Dislikes About Career
One of the positive things that I have worked on since coming to NASA is establishing bioethical principles for using animals in the research program. I think it is a significant contribution to the entire Federal Program. We are the first Federal Agency to develop principles like these. The principles address how you ethically justify the use of animals in research. If nothing else happens in my career, that is probably the most significant thing I've been able to accomplish and we did it fairly quickly. It is a very short set of principles but it is one that I think is going to stand the test of time. I hope that they are improved upon, I doubt anyone will be able to take away from them because they are brief, but it really says it like it needs to be said.
The negatives are that I seem to work a lot of hours. This jobs requires a big time commitment, most days are 10 or 11 hour days, especially as we approach the launch date. I'm not expecting to see very many days off in there. The work load is one you have to be prepared for and have to be able to make a commitment to. Another negative aspect is the amount of travel. A lot of people like to travel but after awhile, travel gets to be a negative aspect. I'm gone about half of the time either to Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center, sometimes Europe or Asia - wherever I need to be, I go. Because I am gone half the time, I forget where I'm sleeping at night, where the bathroom is; I forget what home looks like. You typically travel alone so family, friends and the rest of your world stays behind. That is probably the biggest negative, the time requirement that the job takes and the fact that you're on the road a lot.
Preparation for Career
Nothing that I did as kid prepared me to be a veterinarian. We had a dog but I didn't have an abiding interest in animals at that point. Even when I started college I thought that I was going to go to medical school. Somewhere in there I decided that I really didn't want to be a physician, and I thought that a career in veterinary medicine had societal benefits that are equal to, or may exceed, what physicians contribute. Animals are one of the few things that truly make people happy. If you can keep them happy and healthy; then you've done a lot. Now I find that I don't take care of pets per se but I take care of research animals. They are the experimental subjects, and taking care of them, keeping them healthy so that the results are meaningful, saves peoples lives. It was always rewarding for me when I worked in a University medical school, getting to see projects we developed using monkeys (or mice or rats) years later go through clinical trials in patients and know that there is a person alive today because of that set of animal studies. I think the most rewarding thing in a career in laboratory animal medicine is knowing that what you are doing may keep a small child alive, or may allow them to find a cure for cancer, or a better treatment for heart disease, or develop preventative measures which keep people healthier and out of the hospital.
To prepare for a job like this you have to go to veterinary school. It is really hard to say how to prepare because again, I didn't go looking for this job, it came looking for me. I had no way to prepare for working for the space agency except to have a good basis in veterinary medicine, a good basis in animal husbandry and laboratory animal science. Things just happened to work out so I don't know if can you really prepare. It's kind of like an actor wanting to win an Oscar, you don't prepare for it, you work hard and if it happens it happens.
Since I am the only one in the world doing this, the job market is not too big (laughing). I think I am the only veterinarian in a position like this across the entire planet that is responsible for an animal care program during spaceflight and in the space agency.
As far as being a veterinarian I always tell people the reason for becoming a veterinarian isn't that you love animals. The reason for becoming a veterinarian is that you love medicine and science and that you want to be able to help animals. There is a big difference there. Being a veterinarian can really be a hard career choice because you find that you do have to euthanize animals, whether it be somebody's dog that has been hit by a car, a cat that has been attacked by a dog or just somebody's old pet. There is a lot of human emotion that goes along with the loss of a pet. The other thing is that you are working in a medical service system that doesn't have an insurance system to pay for the benefits, most people who own pets don't have health insurance for the pet. So whatever you do for an animal is an out of pocket expenses for the pet owner and some people just can't afford to go as far with treatment that we would for a human. It isn't easy and it is a lot of work, but it is also very rewarding.
I think for me in lab animal medicine, the reward comes from being able to work with some of the smartest people in the world. Every day you've got someone coming up with a new idea that makes you think about the science, how we can do this in space, how we can take care of the animals during the protocol, what benefit and application this is going to have. It's those things that are really exciting, because everyone I work with is smart, I'm always learning. Not many people can say that about their jobs, I'm in a position where I learn every day. Learning never ends.
There was probably one person who influenced me to go into this and he may never realize it. He was my freshman high school biology teacher who made biology something that was alive and fun. It was after that class that I recognized biology was the most exciting thing I had ever heard about - and it hasn't changed since. So way back in 1963 that seed of interest in biology was planted. How living things function and their complexity really directed everything that I looked at academically and as a career. It was that introduction to biology rather than a noble laureate (and I have known a couple of them too) that influenced me. It's that first little spark students get that says, "this is really fun" that makes a difference. And you know, biology still is fun, it's one area of science thing that I think is truly exciting. We live on Earth, the "living planet" we need to know it , to understand it, in order to go to other planets and look to our future.
I have an 11 year old daughter who intermittently wants to be an astronaut, a lawyer, a doctor or almost anything else. She has assured me that the first person on Mars will be a woman and she may be right. I could easily see that happening and she's sure it will. Right now I don't have any pets because I live in an apartment and I'm gone most of the time. We went from having 4 dogs and 3 cats down to nothing, we will probably get more pets once we move back into a house and have the room for some. I kind of miss fuzzy things. I don't have any talents, I am probably the one person in the world who has no musical ability at all. I draw and watercolor a little bit, I make dollhouses and dollhouse furniture for my daughter. Hobbies are funny, they sort of wax and wane for me. For awhile I did photography and for awhile I painted. Hobbies are meant to change. I have never found anything I stayed with forever and ever, but they are interesting. I do like to exercise, my work productivity is better if I get out and run at lunch, if I don't run I feel stagnant. I play softball, rollerblade (when I don't fall) and ski. I used to do triathlons - if my knees hold up I will go back to them. First I need to get my knees through one year when I can train adequately again. I can do most sports, but I don't do them well. I can do them better than many people but never well enough to compete at a national level. But that's okay; sports are about participation and meeting new friends and convincing your body and mind that you can do anything. My best friends are probably the people I have met running or doing triathlons. They have an attitude towards life that is positive. The nicest thing about sports is even though it is competitive, no one ever works to degrade you. There is a lot of encouragement and a lot of positive attitude and those are the type of people you want to hang around with. They stay friends forever. It doesn't matter how you are educated, athletes don't throw around education. You can get your endorphins up and not worry about what everybody does professionally. I have a good sense of humor. Life is too short to take it too seriously most of the time. You can come to work and you can be engrossed in it, but you should remember to laugh at yourself every day. My office is kind of reflective of that. I try and keep things around that will make people laugh and wonder. Life is fun around here, it's busy and exciting but it is fun.