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Meet: Tana M. Hoban-Higgins, Ph.D.

Control of Rhythms and Homeostasis during Space Flight


If you watched an animal all day and night, you would see that it was doing different things at different times. For example, a mouse would be awake and looking for food all night, and, as the Sun came up, the mouse would go home to its burrow and sleep all day. You, on the other hand, wake up in the morning when the Sun comes up and go to sleep at night after the Sun goes down. Many plants also open their leaves or flowers in the morning when the Sun comes up and close them as the night arrives. At first, people thought that the flowers opened because the Sun was shining on them, but in 1729 a French scientist put a plant in a cave where there was no sun. He was surprised to find that the plant continued to open and close its leaves, just as if it could see the Sun. This was the first experiment that showed that plants (and animals) have a clock inside them that lets them know what time of day it is and times their activities.

As a research physiologist at the University of California Davis, I study these body clocks. My job is to design and run experiments that answer questions that we have about this system. For Neurolab I will be working with Dr. Fuller on the "Control of Rhythms and Homeostasis during Space Flight" experiment.

photo of beetle I have been lucky to have had other opportunities for experiments in space. I (and my co-investigators) designed the Beetle experiment for the Shuttle/Mir program to examine how the body clock is affected by spaceflight. Previous experiments have suggested that the body clock may respond differently in space than on the Earth, but, before a space station was available, the experiments could not be long enough to answer all our questions. The beetles will be returning to earth in early October, hopefully with answers to some of our questions.

I became interested in body clocks in my last year of college. I was studying marine biology at Cornell University when Professor Ruth Satter came to visit from the University of Connecticut. She gave a class on body clocks and it was fascinating. I continued to study clocks at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where I received my doctorate. I worked in Dr. Frank Sulzman's lab and studied squirrel monkeys. After a post-doc position at the Oregon Health Sciences University, I moved to UC Davis. The lab I work in is called the Chronic Acceleration Research Unit because it has several large centrifuges that are used to produce a greater than Earth's gravity force.

What I enjoy most about working in the lab (besides getting to do science, which is the best job in the world) is the interaction I have with all the people who work here. There are other scientists, technicians and students (graduate and undergraduate) and everyone has a different point of view. What I like least about my job is all the writing that we have to do, but it's worth it to get to do the experiments. I hope to continue to be a scientist all my life.

Personal Life

I grew up in Stony Point, N.Y., a small town on the Hudson River just north of New Jersey. My parents were very supportive of my early interest in science and always encouraged me to do my best. I was in Girl Scouts and 4-H and I played on the basketball team in high school. I have one brother, Richard. He plays the drums, so sometimes our house was very noisy.

Now I live in Sacramento, Calif. I've been married for eight years and my husband's name is Paco. He plays guitar. We have four cats (Spats, Simba, Zipper and Dos) and a dog (Beau). We like to go hiking and ride bicycles and Paco rollerblades (I rollerblade very slowly).

Things I do for fun: read (especially mysteries), go to the movies, cook different kinds of food and take photographs.


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