Feature

Psychologists have a friend in NASA's science chief Kathie L. Olsen, PhD, a psychobiologist whose strength lies in helping the various scientific disciplines collaborate.

For almost a year, Olsen has served as NASA Director Dan Goldin's senior scientific advisor, acting as the main interface with the national and international scientific community and recommending how to spend the agency's research budget.

Although Olsen, who worked at the National Science Foundation (NSF) for 10 years before moving to NASA, loves her job, she was skeptical when the agency first approached her.

"I'm a behavioral neuroendocrinologist," she says. "And although I had in the past worked with NASA very closely on activities dealing with biology and psychology, I've always thought of NASA more as space science, astronomy, earth science, that kind of thing."

But Goldin wanted a biologist who could help integrate the various scientific areas NASA funds, including the biomedical sciences, neuroscience and the behavioral sciences. And forming teams was a specialty of Olsen's in her work at NSF. Most recently she worked as a senior staff associate in the foundation's Office of Integrative Activities.

In fact, she has been in high demand since graduating with a PhD in neuroscience from the University of California, Irvine, in 1979.

Only six months into a postdoctoral program in behavioral neuroendocrinology at Children's Hospital at Harvard Medical School, the State University of New York (SUNY), Stony Brook, offered her a position in the psychiatry department as part of a new emphasis on neuroscience.

A few years later, NSF offered her a one-year position running its psychobiology program. She stayed for two years, while maintaining a lab at SUNY and working in a lab at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Then, soon after returning to Stony Brook, NSF called again and offered her the chance to design her own program in behavioral neuroendocrinology. It was an offer she says she couldn't refuse and she moved to Washington, D.C., permanently in 1988.

"I really love working in the federal government because there are a lot of opportunities in terms of advancing science," she says.

Olsen spoke with the Monitor about her job and new opportunities for psychologists interested in NASA funding.

Q. What persuaded you to take the NASA position?

A. NASA is very committed to including biology and psychology in its road map and its future. And the job provides a number of challenging opportunities. I'm responsible for cross-enterprise activities that include all three NASA research enterprises, that is, space science, earth science and life and microgravity science.

Q. Do you see a willingness at NASA to support human factors and psychosocial research?

A. Absolutely. Human factors research is critical for the immediate and long-term goals of NASA in terms of NASA astronaut and work-force health and safety. We have a number of activities being developed, including a road map for human factors. And in January our life-sciences program organized a leadership summit in Texas to examine where we are in terms of psychological research, environmental health research and research dealing with human-machine interactions and come up with a road map of where we're going to head in this area.

Q. Over the past several years, reports have come out criticizing NASA for neglecting social and behavioral research. Is there any plan for expanding NASA's funding in this area?

A. Yes. In August, we released a research announcement that included an entire section on behavior and performance. [See NASA's Web site at peer1.idi.usra.edu.] In it we emphasized psychological research, including research on the development of predictive tools for the assessment of psychological well-being and development of procedures or tools to support psychological well-being, cognitive processes and mood and emotion, especially as affected by multicultural or gender variables in long-term space missions. We want to develop tools and procedures that can enhance human performance and human interactions in environments where it can be very hazardous, very isolated and sometimes very boring. We received a number of exciting proposals, which will be reviewed and decided on by April or May. And given the program's success, it looks like we will most likely be releasing another announcement next year.

Q. Can you explain how psychological research will fit into NASA's growing research program on aging?

A. I don't see how psychology and behavior can be separated from a number of things we do at NASA, including our aging research program. A lot of the challenges in space flight are quite similar to what individuals encounter when they age. For example, on the space shuttle sleep patterns change such that the astronauts wake up more often and are only sleeping about six hours per night. That's exactly what happens with aging. This is an area we are going to be actively studying in collaboration with the NIH. If we're going on long-term space flights and astronauts are only averaging six hours of sleep a night, but need to be at peak performance, we've got some problems. The research will be helpful for the health and safety of our astronauts and also for life here on earth.

Q. How do people apply for grants in this area?

A. We're working with NIH, and primarily the aging institute, to develop a program that will allow researchers to apply to NIH for money to do ground-based research that's associated with NASA's mission. Then, when they're ready, researchers will hopefully apply to NASA and test their questions up on the space station or shuttle.

In addition, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute--a private nonprofit organization funded by NASA--will be inviting researchers to apply for grants in the area of neurobehavioral and psychological factors related to developing countermeasures against the deleterious effects of long-duration space flight. [For more information visit their web site at www.nsbri.com.]

Q. Are you worried that cuts to NASA's budget will affect the research programs?

A. Every federal agency is worried about budget problems. It is important that we prioritize to ensure that the health and safety of our astronauts and our work force and the quality of our research programs are given the highest priority. But, as I say, behavioral research is recognized and is very important here at NASA.