An Interview with Dr. Sarah Wyatt by Nathan Scinto-Madonich
Dr. Sarah Wyatt is a Professor and Director of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Ohio University, where her lab studies plant signaling, gravitropism, and the transition of floral dimorphisms. Dr. Wyatt’s lab has had two research projects that went to the International Space Station, most recently in 2017. Dr. Wyatt is also an active and innovative educator, and was recognized for this work in 2017 with the ASPB Excellence in Education Award.
1. Where were you when you first learned of the Apollo 11 mission? What was your reaction?
I don’t know where I was when I learned of Apollo 11. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, I was where most of the world was, in front of a TV. My family was crammed in the den, watching the broadcast of the moon landing. It was an incredibly exciting time, especially since they were still walking on the moon for my birthday (July 21). My twin sister and I got to stay up late to watch the landing and moon walk and then usher in our 11th birthday as they walked on the moon. Pretty sure NASA hadn’t planned that just for me, but it sure made that birthday special. I have never looked at the moon the same. I swear I can see the footprints.
2. Did Apollo 11 have any effect on your career aspirations or trajectory? What ultimately inspired you to study the effects of the space environment on plants?
Did Apollo 11 effect my career? Who knows, maybe it was the space race in general. I certainly didn’t become an aerospace engineer or astronaut, maybe that had more to do with the time and assumptions about what women could do and being first generation. But when I got the opportunity to work on a NASA funded project for my Postdoc, I grabbed it. In the cover letter of the application, I believe I mentioned that I was a little bit of a space nerd.
3. If you have sent plants into space for experiments, could you describe what your feelings after the launch?
Before, during, after – just pure excitement. With the launch of BRIC 20 (my first experiment that flew to ISS), the launch was delayed a few times. The first actual launch attempt, it just happened the ISS was coming across Kennedy Space Center right before the launch. We (my students and collaborators) were our on the causeway at Kennedy, blasting space appropriate music (Rocket Man, Space Oddity, 2001) into the early morning (still dark) sky and watching as ISS came overhead. Talk about a perfect set up. The Falcon should have launched right to it. It did not that day. It aborted with 10 sec to launch! I took everyone to the visitor center, where they have a replica of ISS for kids to climb through. We all cramped ourselves into it and took a selfie. We made it even if the seeds didn’t! A month later, we had launch. I actually can’t describe what that feels like, the just total excitement, it sort of wells up in your chest, or at least mine. When I show the launch during talks and the announcer says “…launch of the Falcon 9 rocket to resupply the International Space Station” I always add “and my experiment”. It’s exciting just writing about it. Every time I see ISS come across the night sky (which is as often as Ohio nights allow), I think – people are up there.
4. Are there lasting lessons from Apollo 11 that you would impart to students or early career researchers 50 years after this momentous event?
Persevere! Apollo 11 took 400,000 people, working long hours – creating, testing, revising, rethinking, retest – to make the dream a reality. True scientific discovery takes time, thought and work.
I’d like to thank Dr. Sarah Wyatt for contributing to the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Post!
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