At the end of the World space week 2021, the Newspoint team met with Christine Gatt, a Biomedical Scientist and a PhD student at the University of Malta. Ms Gatt studied at the University of Malta and achieved her B. Sc. in Applied Biomedical Science degree in 2005.
Later she started working as a Biomedical Scientist at the Bacteriology Laboratory at Mater Dei Hospital, where she still holds a profession to this day. Few years later she decided to specialise in Medical Microbiology through Masters Degree in Biomedical Science with the University of Ulster in Ireland and last year she started reading for a PhD in Applied Biomedical Science with the University of Malta, researching about the Microbiome of Diabetic Foot Ulcers.
Christine was part of Project Maleth, the first mission into outer space by Maltese researchers. She performed preliminary analysis on the microbiome of samples, before they were sent to space.
Q: How did you get the idea of doing research in Space?
A: My PhD tutor, Prof Joseph Borg, had the idea himself of sending an experiment to space. He therefore asked me if I would be interested to join the research to which I immediately accepted. It isn’t an opportunity that you let pass by, is it? We then started working together, where Prof Borg took care of all the logistics whilst I took care of the sample preparation and analysis.
Q: Who inspires you from the world of science? And from your personal experience?
A: I would say that there are a lot of scientists that inspire me but three female scientists that I really admire are Rebecca Lancefield, Abigail Salyers and Jane Goodall. Rebecca Lancefield, was an American Microbiologist, who had discovered the serological classification of Beta haemolytic Streptococci. We still use this test, called Lancefield grouping in fact, every day in our diagnostic laboratories to identify Streptococcal species in clinical specimens. Abigail Salyers, was another American Microbiologist and is considered to be the mother of microbiome research. She did pioneering work on the gut microbiome as well as helping us understand resistance mechanisms in bacteria. Jane Goodall is another extraordinary woman in science. She is a biologist who has done and is still doing exceptional work in understanding chimpanzee behaviour as well as being an ambassador for Earth’s conservation.
All of these exceptional women have faced criticism throughout their career however they were resilient and didn’t let the opinion of others affect their work, resulting in major breakthroughs in science.Nowadays, more women are choosing a profession in science and although things are better and there are more opportunities, women still feel that they need to work that little bit harder to prove that they got what it takes to be just as good, if not better, than men!
Q: What interests you the most, what is the fun part, the most satisfactory part of studying and researching about the atmosphere in space ?
A: The topic of space is fascinating, and one could see that the topic sparks a lot of enthusiasm amongst even young children who just started school. The idea or notion of having the opportunity to perform what I love best – that is biomedical science – but in the context of space biosciences, was and still is one of the most fun and exciting parts whilst embarking on my PhD studies. Reading, and listening to TV programs about what goes on onboard the International Space Station, and the type of science that is performed, - and then being part of project Maleth with actually sending science for the first time for Malta – made it one of the most satisfying parts of my ongoing research. I now also realise that research in space has endless opportunities.
Q: How does it feel being one of the few females in the team or in the sector in general ?
A: If we take my profession, actually the majority of Biomedical Scientists here in Malta are females! However in the space industry women were not that common in previous decades. Nowadays more and more women are having a leading role in the space industry. So the page is turning.
Q: What are your goals in the near future?
A: My priority at the moment is to complete my PhD research. We are also aiming to send more experiments in space and further our research and knowledge in the field of microbiology and space.
Q: How is today’s space industry different from how it would’ve been 10 years ago? How did technology help with regards to making things possible?
A: Nowadays space research is much more accessible. Space flights to and from the International Space Station are done every month compared to previous years where these were made over longer periods of time, where scientists had to wait for 6 months to send their experiments on the ISS. Also with Elon Musk’s breakthrough of reusing the launch rocket, spaceflight has become more affordable.
Companies, such as Space Applications Services, based in Belgium and the Netherlands, which we have used, make it easier to access space as they guide you through the whole process. They also have their own facility inside the ISS where scientists can place their Ice Cubes (International Commercial Experiment Cubes) containing experiments on the ISS.
Q: What’s your opinion of the space race between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, and the human species’ general obsession with making it into space?
A: Since Galileo’s times, humans have always been fascinated by space, as it is something that is out there and unknown. Before it was something that was unreachable however in this day and age space is more accessible.
With regards to Musk and Bezos, it is a race of who would be the first to send people to the moon or Mars!
They both have now sent humans to space, although Musk has had much more success in sending multiple missions including humans to low Earth orbit, and astronauts to the International Space Station. Unlike Bezos, who has thus far sent humans on an upward trajectory for a few minutes of weightlessness and fall back. Of course, both offer a thrilling experience I am sure, and one needs to keep on watching to see how it will all unfold. All in all, such efforts for space tourism, space travel and accessibility to space will also be good for business, to be the first, but that is also a driving force for researchers to push themselves and find solutions to what we see as impossible solutions.
Q: Through Project Maleth, we see a ‘collision’, for lack of a better word, or perhaps ‘marriage’ or co-existence, of space and health. What are some of the many good reasons for this partnership?
A: Space offers an environment that is quite different from that of Earth. There are stresses such as microgravity and radiation that affect living organisms namely bacteria and human cells. With Project Maleth we are aiming to look into these mutations with the hope of finding some biomarkers that may offer better treatment and management of diabetic patients with foot ulcers.