Cover Story

Cowings was the first American woman to be trained as a scientist astronaut. She was an alternate in 1979. Although she never made it to space, she has spent her 34-year career at NASA making it better for those who do. Cowings helps astronauts better adapt to space by studying the effects of gravity on human physiology and performance.

Career Path: Cowings earned her psychology doctorate from the University of California, Davis, in 1973. She has worked at NASA since 1971 when she was a graduate student and received a fellowship in NASA's Graduate Research Science Program. She has served as principal investigator for a number of studies, mostly involving the autogenic-feedback training exercise (AFTE), a treatment for space motion sickness she developed and patented. AFTE teaches people to control up to 20 physiological responses--such as heart rate, skin conductance, muscle reactivity and blood pressure--to overcome motion sickness and improve performance during high-stress tasks.

Work schedule: Cowings and her team prepare astronauts to handle the physiological impact of space by teaching them AFTE. In downtimes, they run a remote training software program via the Internet to help civilian hospital patients with various conditions, such as gastrointestinal disorders. Currently, they are using AFTE at the Morehouse University School of Medicine in Atlanta, where doctors are using it to control patients' blood pressure. Research has shown that AFTE also helps with nausea and hypertension.

When Cowings teaches AFTE to astronauts, the training includes 12 sessions--each 30 minutes--to help them learn to control physiological responses. At first, they receive feedback, and then gradually they learn to control the responses on their own. For example, training might include self-suggestions to increase warmth in their hands.

Best part of her job: "Touching astronauts," she says--but not in the way it sounds. The astronauts make great test subjects "since on any metric measure of human performance, they tend to be a couple of standard deviations above the mean," she says. Astronauts are intelligent, usually holding multiple advanced degrees, and they are physically fit. "I get to see what they are like and help them" better adapt to space, she adds.

Salary: NASA scientists at her level can make around $125,000 a year. Graduate students working full time at NASA generally make $1,950 a month, and undergraduates earn $1,650 per month.

How you can get her job: "If you want to work in this area--ask," Cowings says. "You'd be surprised." For example, when she was in graduate school, she wrote a letter to psychologist Neal Miller--a pioneer of biofeedback research who discovered that people could be trained to alter bodily processes--and explained to him that he was her hero and she would love to work for him, even for free. She worked with him for one year on his biofeedback research, and they eventually worked together as co-investigators on AFTE research.

"If you're financially able, work for free to get yourself in the door," she says. Many students volunteer at NASA to gain the experience, not to mention a good letter of recommendation, she says.