One Giant Leap for My Future: Summer Internship Experience with NASA GeneLab

post by Henry Cope (2019 cohort)

Over the summer I had the honour of taking part in the NASA GeneLab summer internship programme. Despite previous plans to complete this in sunny California, the pandemic made it necessary to adapt the internship format, which I must admit was bittersweet. Nevertheless, I was incredibly excited to step into my role as a space biology bioinformatics intern.

Now, I appreciate right off the bat that this might raise a few questions, so I will endeavour to briefly break down the relevant terms as follows:

      • Space biology – This is the study of the adaptation of terrestrial organisms (e.g., you and I) to the extreme environment of space. Two of the main spaceflight stressors are increased radiation exposure and microgravity (0G). The knowledge generated from space biology is important for developing improved countermeasures, such as to reduce microgravity-driven muscle loss experienced by astronauts, which also occurs on Earth due to factors including muscle wasting diseases, or bed rest following surgery. If you are interested in learning about space biology in more detail, I can recommend this open-access review; it’s a very exciting time right now for spaceflight!
      • Omics – These are types of biological “big data” (usually ending in “-omics”, go figure) that tell us about the underlying functioning of different systems within the body. Of course, a classic example is genomics, in which your unique DNA sequence imparts traits such as eye colour. However, there is also transcriptomics, which capture snapshots of how activated/expressed your genes are at given points in time.
      • Bioinformatics – This is essentially analysing biological data, including omics, via software. When a sample of biological material is taken, it can be processed in the lab for different kinds of omics analyses and then computational methods are used to identify meaningful patterns in the data. Lots of programming! 🙂
      • NASA GeneLab – NASA GeneLab is an organisation that consists of two primary components. One is the data side, which is delivered via a carefully curated public biobank of omics collected from spaceflight missions (usually involving model organisms like mice), or from studies on Earth that simulate aspects of spaceflight. The second side of GeneLab is the people side, which is mainly delivered via international analysis working groups (AWGs) that work together to analyse the data within the repository. Spaceflight experiments are costly, so GeneLab’s open-science approach of increasing access to data and collaboration during analysis is important for maximising the scientific potential of these experiments.

With the definitions out of the way, I will briefly describe my primary project for the internship. Essentially, I was presented with several transcriptomics datasets that had been generated from RNA extracted from the skin of mice. These datasets were derived from mice that had been flown on different missions, with lots of other variables such as differences in diet and duration spent on the International Space Station (ISS). Skin is particularly interesting in the context of space biology for several reasons as follows:

      • In spaceflight, dermatological issues such as rashes are very common
      • Skin is the first line of defence against cosmic radiation and an important barrier against pathogens
      • Skin can be monitored using non-invasive methods like swabs, which avoids risks associated with invasive biopsies
      • Skin can act as a “mirror”, telling us about the underlying health of the body in terms of things like immune function and diet
      • Despite the aforementioned importance of skin, skin is incredibly understudied in space!

I had carried out some initial analysis of the datasets prior to the start of the internship, under the guidance of Craig Willis, who was at the time a PhD student at the University of Exeter and is now a researcher at Ohio University! Whilst I had prior experience with programming, bioinformatics was new to me. Craig very kindly showed me the ropes so that I would have the necessary skills to jump straight into the internship project. That said, GeneLab runs programmes for teaching bioinformatics to students at different levels, so having prior bioinformatics skills was not at all a requirement.

Just before I started the internship, I met Afshin Beheshti, who is a bioinformatician and principal investigator at KBR/NASA Ames Research Center, amongst other roles! Afshin was incredibly friendly so we got on right away. Throughout the internship we met weekly via video call, but we also communicated via Slack throughout the week. I strongly believe that a line of communication which is more direct than email is essential for virtual internships. During the internship, GeneLab also organised online networking events, which gave me the opportunity to talk to the other interns about their projects.

Following my internship, I have continued to work on the skin analysis project, and we are now striving towards a publication, which will include astronaut data (a rarity!) alongside the rodent data. I also had the honour of presenting some of our findings online at the public NASA GeneLab AWG workshop in November, and in-person at the Royal Aeronautical Society Aerospace Medicine Group Annual Symposium in London in December. As part of the continued work on the project, I have also been able to engage with the GeneLab for High School (GL4HS) programme. Several students who have previously completed a high school level internship with GeneLab are now working on tasks such as literature review and figure generation for the publication. An additional output is that some of the semi-automatic figures that I have developed for this project have been adapted to different datasets for use in publications for the Covid-19 International Research Team (COV-IRT), of which Afshin is president.

Ultimately, I am very happy to have completed an internship with GeneLab. I’ve developed some great relationships along the way, which have continued past the scope of the internship. In particular, I’d like to thank Sam Gebre for organising the internship, Afshin Beheshti for being an excellent supervisor, and Sigrid Reinsch, Jennifer Claudio, Liz Blaber and the students involved in the GL4HS programme. If you wish to know more about my project or have questions about space biology in general, please feel free to reach me at: