Why do so many astronauts return to Earth with blurred vision? That’s the question Karina Marshall-Goebel ’10 aims to answer with her research on how long-term space travel impacts the human body, specifically our eyes.
While much has been done to understand other spaceflight side effects, the causes of vision issues have been elusive.
Marshall-Goebel is on a mission to change that. She’s focused on testing a hypothesis that microgravity, which enables us to float during spaceflight, may cause an increase in pressure around the brain. That pressure impacts eyes’ arteries, causing them to deform and vision to change.
This work has garnered the alumna international recognition, including a spot on the Forbes “30 Under 30 Science and Healthcare” list for 2017 in Europe. (She earned her master’s at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France, and her doctorate at the University of Cologne in Germany.)
“In high school, I found I enjoyed my science classes the most,” says Marshall-Goebel, who grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do after college. All I knew was that I loved science.”
The other thing she knew: “Being from the Midwest, I was craving an adventure, to experience a new part of the country.” A guidance counselor recommended UVM, which turned out to be a perfect fit. “The proximity to great skiing didn’t hurt either,” Marshall-Goebel laughs.
She entered college with a commitment to get involved and dove in—orientation leader; orchestra (cello); crew team; TriBeta, the biological honors society; and, of course, hitting the slopes with the Ski & Snowboard Club.
A bio major/chem minor, Marshall-Goebel was on a pre-med path until things took a turn with a senior year comparative physiology class. “Studying the human body and how it functions was absolutely fascinating to me, and I knew immediately that I was hooked,” she says. “The freedom to take a variety of biology courses, from forensic biology to marine ecology, allowed me to discover what spoke to me the most and where my passion was.”
NEXT STOP: MARS
Marshall-Goebel discovered space physiology as her “true calling” during her master’s work. “Understanding how the body works is one thing. Figuring out how the body adapts when you take away gravity is a whole different ballgame.” During an internship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, she found her niche in eyesight.
Knowing why vision changes in space, and how we can prevent it, is not just key for a handful of astronauts on the International Space Station; it has huge implications for larger-scale human space travel, and, perhaps someday, the colonization of other planets. “I want to be part of the generation that pushes us to go to Mars, and makes it a reality,” Marshall-Goebel says.
Her work could also benefit Earthlings. In order to test her vision change hypothesis, Marshall-Goebel is using new, non-invasive technology that accurately measures pressure around the brain. If proven effective, this device could be useful for treating traumatic brain injury or glaucoma patients.
‘IN OUR BLOOD’
Currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Marshall-Goebel continues to research vision changes and test countermeasures. She’s also examining the influence that increased CO2 has on astronauts. “You can’t just open the window to get some fresh air up there!”
After helping to enable safe, long-term space travel, what’s next? “I hope to become a professor and pass on this knowledge to younger generations. And, of course, my ultimate goal is to fly in space,” Marshall-Goebel says. “It’s in our blood, wanting to discover and explore new places. Just knowing that I can play a small role in that huge goal is really motivating.”