Meet: Mary Anne Frey
Neurolab Program Scientist
What I do
I'm a program scientist or program coordinator for several programs. Neurolab is one of the most important. Other important programs I'm involved in include development of the Human Research Facility that will be on the Space Station and a program for ground-based research in space physiology. This program seeks to develop countermeasures to some of the effects of space flight for astronauts in flight and coming back to Earth, such as the loss of bone or the tendency to faint. I also work with scientists at universities, people at other agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, and our international partners in space life sciences to coordinate joint programs.
Role for Neurolab
For Neurolab, my title is program scientist. I am the chief scientist at NASA Headquarters for the Neurolab Program. One of my responsibilities is to be sure that innovative, state-of-the-art science is performed on Neurolab and also to communicate the exciting research that we're doing on Neurolab. I work with our partners, the NASA centers, and the investigators. Sometimes I'm responsible for resolving conflicts.
We want to be sure that all of the science that we support is high quality science. Typically this is done by getting together a panel of experts in the scientific discipline and having them read the proposals that the scientists submit. The experts review these proposals and evaluate them. This is what we call "peer review" of the science proposals.
The STS-90 experiment selection was a very special one. It was managed by the National Institutes of Health because they have so much expertise in peer review, and they are partners in Neurolab. Neurolab is an international partnership and includes science that is funded by all the participating agencies. So the peer review was international: it was something that hadn't been done before.
For all research we fund, we depend heavily upon scientists to evaluate the proposals for us. Then, after they've evaluated the scientific merit, if the proposal is for a flight experiment, it is examined to be sure that it can be done in flight. That review is performed by people who are experts in flight hardware: people who work at our Centers. In the case of the life sciences, that means the Johnson Space Center and the Ames Research Center.
Then we, at headquarters, (and, in the case of Neurolab, with our partners) decide what fits together to make a good compatible space flight mission. On Neurolab the investigations were put together in teams in which they were either sharing the subjects, or had the same research goals, or were using the same hardware. That, again, is special to Neurolab.
My Career Journey
Ever since the space program started, I've been excited about it, but at first I didn't imagine I'd be a part of it. I really wasn't interested in science until I took an astronomy course when I started college, and this course was so exciting that I knew I wanted to learn much more about the secrets of the universe and the world and life. A teacher turned me on to science.
Even though I had been totally avoiding science before the astronomy course, after this course, I decided to major in physics. Then I went on to study physiology when I was in graduate school. When I finished graduate school, I taught physiology in a medical school for a number of years and did research studying cardiovascular physiology and exercise. Then in 1982, I joined the space program.
When I started working with NASA, I was a researcher. I worked first at the Kennedy Space Center, and then at the Johnson Space Center. I was doing research related to what we call "orthostatic intolerance." When astronauts come back to Earth after they become adapted to space and weightlessness, they tend to faint when they stand because their blood pressure falls. This is "orthosstatic intolerance." I was doing research and looking for countermeasures that we might use to protect astronauts when they return to Earth's gravity.
I think that experience as a scientific researcher is essential for my current job. I guess it would be possible, but not as good, to try to do the management type job I do now if I hadn't been a researcher. Another important experience was having worked at some of the NASA centers. I interact with the centers a lot now, and I have a much better appreciation for what the people at the centers do because I worked there before I came to headquarters. It helps in the communication.
When I was at the Kennedy Space Center and going into management, I went back to school, and obtained an MBA in management. That's also been helpful in doing my present job. There are many different pathways by which a person could come to this job. I don't know that any one is perfect, but I think that my background has worked very well for many of the things that I'm doing now.
Likes/Dislikes about career
I guess you can imagine: it's a very exciting job! I love it, and Neurolab is a wonderful mission. There's so much state-or-the-art, innovative science on Neurolab that I think it will be the most exciting space life sciences mission ever flown. And also, of course, working with the Human Research Facility on the International Space Station. That's the science platform of the future.
I work with excellent scientists from all over the world. This is exciting! I work with the astronauts and people at the centers who have experience with space life sciences missions. The people I work with at headquarters are good to work with and they work very hard.
I travel throughout the United States and overseas. I've just returned from a trip where I met with our partners from the European Space Agency, the Japanese Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, Germany, France and Italy. And this is certainly a fun part of the job.
I do have to work hard and work long hours. That's not just me: that's a lot of the people in this business. Sometimes I miss being the researcher who's actually doing the exciting research. So before somebody gets into a job like this, they should be sure that they want a break from research or have finished their research career. I don't regret my decision at all, but I do miss being a researcher.
One of the negatives of the job is the uncertainty of the budget from year to year. We have to wait for Congress to give us a budget and for the budget to be worked out in the Agency. We're not always certain from year to year what our budgets will be. That makes it difficult to plan for the future. That's not just my problem: it's everybody's problem in the government who is trying to plan for the future.
Preparation for career
As a child I never thought about this kind of a job. When I was a child there wasn't a space program. It was before Sputnik, the first flight of the USSR, the first flight of Alan Shephard and John Glenn. I listened to Buck Rogers on the radio; space flight was very exciting, but the idea that it would happen in my lifetime was something that I didn't think about then. I make it sound like I'm really old, but it's amazing that science and engineering have made such strides. Also it would have been unlikely at that time that a woman would have been considered for this job, or that girls were thinking about these kinds of jobs. This is a wonderful change over the years, and I'm delighted that we now have access to these exciting jobs.
I did like to read. I was a good student especially in math, although as I said I wasn't interested in science. I was interested in sports and exercise. Space flight is not exactly sports and exercise, but it's an integrated activity of the human body like exercise. When we're thinking about space flight we're really thinking about what happens in the whole body. And when we talk about exercise we're looking at what happens in the whole body, so there is a relationship.
In addition, I never liked to be told I couldn't do something! So the challenge of space flight and of having a job like this, while I can't say it's something I prepared for as a child, maybe it suited my personality.
My advice is not to limit your horizons. I believe a good well-rounded education is very important. Certainly for this job science is important, but so are communications skills; and writing skills are very, very important for being a scientist, for being a manager, and for working at NASA. Knowledge about business and management helps when you're working on the management side. I tremendously admire my colleagues who can speak one or two or more languages when we go overseas. This is not a skill I have but certainly one that I would recommend to students planning to go into this type of profession where we interact so much on an international level.
Another thing is: get varied experience before going for a job like mine at headquarters. Work and visit centers, universities, medical centers and try to have some overseas experience and have experience generally in the field before getting into the management-type job.
Of course, many people are influencial for all of us in choosing our careers. I especially remember my astronomy teacher from college. Although I haven't seen him since or heard from him, his good teaching was so influential in changing me from a science phobic to a real science enthusiast.
My family has been supportive. I was married and had children when I was very young - before I had any college experience. I actually started college when my children were in school: getting ready for junior high school actually. With their encouragement, which was very important, I kept going until I finished a Ph.D., so you know that was a lot of years! They were off in college by the time I finished.
I have three daughters. One of them lives in Colorado, one in Virginia, and one in Ohio. I have four granddaughters and one grandson. Chester is a beautiful two-year old longhaired yellow cat who lives with me. Chester is very smart!
I like to read and to play tennis and golf. I don't think you'll be reading about me at the U.S.Open or anything, but I love to play tennis.