Interview with Rachel Clemens, Biofabrication In Space

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Rachel Clemens has focused her career on advancing life science research and product development through experiments in space. In her current role as a Commercial Innovation Manager at the ISS US National Lab, she brings life science research to low earth orbit. She leads partnership development with life science companies – she finds that every sector, from start-ups to big pharma, can benefit from research in space. She is eager to entertain even the craziest of ideas and passionate about finding new solutions to Earth-bound problems. 

After earning a PhD in Molecular Biology from Oregon Health and Science University, Rachel became a Scientist at NASA Ames Research Center leading research on how microgravity affects host-immune systems and microbial pathogenesis. In addition to her current role at the National Lab, Rachel volunteers as a scientific Project Manager at the Rare Genomics Institute, which connects rare disease patients around the world and provides tools and support to the greater rare disease community. She is based in San Francisco, CA where she blazes trails on foot, conquers hills by bike, and bravely hosts dinner parties in her micro-studio.

Rachel will be speaking at 3DHEALS2020 (and answering questions) on microgravity/ISS for 3D printing directly.

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Jenny: What was like working at NASA Ames as a research scientist? What was your main focus?

Rachel: It was a fantastic opportunity for me. I hadn’t before then ever thought about how removing gravity would impact a biological system. It was probably a year before I had fully wrapped my head around how much our bodies were built to live in a 1g environment.

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International Space Station (Photo Credit: ISS/CASIS)
Printing the Future: An Introduction to Additive Manufacturing in Space

Jenny: What made you decide to transition into your current role at Center for the Advancement of Science in Space. manager of the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory (herein ISS National Lab)? 

Rachel: I loved doing research and sharing my findings with others, but I found what I loved more was talking to my colleagues about what they were working on and brainstorming solutions to various roadblocks they were experiencing. And ultimately, I felt I could contribute to the pursuit of discovery and innovation in a different capacity. When the opportunity to work on business development projects that could leverage the ISS National Lab, it seemed like a perfect combination of my unique background with my innate talents in working with others. So, I jumped at the chance.

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LambdaVision’s tiny protein-based retinal implant. The implant is the small purple dot, which is about the size of a paper hole punch. (CREDIT: Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Jenny: What are you responsible for at the ISS National Lab? 

Rachel: I conduct a lot of outreach, particularly in the life sciences, to educate people about what the ISS National Lab has to offer in the way of a research platform. Many people are still surprised that it is available to them, thinking that it is only a platform for NASA researchers, but it was created so that the broader research community in the U.S. could have access to space for their research. 

I also work with large organizations on program development; whether leadership wants to provide opportunities for research staff to conduct R&D on the ISS or the organization wants to stimulate research in a particular area, I am here to work with them to achieve those goals.

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A Multipurpose Precision Maintenance Tool that was 3D printed on the ISS using the AMF. The tool was the winning design of the 2014 Future Engineers Space Tool design competition, in which students submitted designs of tools for ISS crew members that could be 3D printed with the AMF. (CREDIT: Made In Space )

Jenny: When was it like when you first encountered the concept of 3D printing and bioprinting? What was it like? 

Rachel: I was probably introduced to the concept 3D printing in grade school, but I didn’t think much about it until the past few years when I learned people were talking about using 3D printing for building tissues. I think there is a lot of potential in 3D bioprinting for a variety of applications. Despite that promise, however, there are so many challenges still. Vascularization of tissue, for example, is a big hurdle and people are starting to really innovate solutions. I was reading recently about the work out of the Lewis Lab and their SWIFT bioprinting technique. What an idea to treat the cells kind of like a scaffold instead of the other way around! I know a lot of groups are working on this and it’s just so exciting to watch the discoveries unfold.

Jenny: How is 3D printing, bioprinting, and biofabrication related to your current work on board the ISS National Lab? 

Rachel: The ISS National Lab has several facilities on board available for people to conduct their investigations. Among them are a couple of 3D printers. One is a second-generation printer that can create structures from plastic feedstocks. Another is designed to print biomaterials and cells. Both of these facilities were engineered by companies that develop hardware for use in space, who are an important part of this community that conducts and supports research in low Earth orbit. I also work with other team members to promote discussion among the part of the community focused on developing technology solutions for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. And 3D biofabrication is an important component of that conversation.

Jenny: Who inspired you the most along this journey?

Rachel: Lots of people! I’m not the kind of person who derives inspiration from just one person. I have grown to realize that surrounding myself with people who encourage me to be a better version of myself has had profound positive impacts on me personally and professionally. 

Jenny: What are you most excited about right now (in terms of projects related to 3D printing)? 

Rachel: I am so excited that biofabrication capability finally exists at the space station! There are a lot of open questions we can now answer with this facility. How can we modify the fundamental properties (like viscosity or porosity) of printed biomaterial to a level that is more biologically relevant? What will it be like to print cells in microgravity? What will happen when we allow that printed tissue to grow? The work has barely begun, really, and I am excited to see researchers take advantage of this opportunity. 

I am also excited about a recent bit of news from one of our research partners, LambdaVision, who received a $5M award from NASA to further develop their layer-by-layer manufacturing processes on the ISS for retinal implants. LambdaVision received a Technology in Space Prize – an award run by the ISS National Lab, Boeing and MassChallenge – for their first space station study in 2016. It’s a real success story!

Jenny: Who would benefit from doing research in space? What unique projects can commercial partners do that they can’t elsewhere?   

Rachel: The ISS presents three unique opportunities to change the way we look at our science. (1) microgravity, (2) the extreme conditions outside the Station, and (3) the unique vantage point. I would say that of the three, microgravity is the most leveraged and is the most relevant to 3D printing. There is nowhere on the planet that a person can recreate a sustained microgravity environment.

I encourage people to think about what removing gravity would do to their science, even just as an exercise. What would happen to the bubbles forming in that reaction without buoyancy? What would happen to in that colloidal suspension without sedimentation? What would happen to heating or cooling a material without convection? All of these are gravity-dependent phenomena that just don’t happen in space. The questions I list are fundamental, but let the imagination go for a while and see what you come up with.

Jenny: What do you think what has not been done enough to advance the field of bio-fabrication?

Rachel: For biofabrication on the ISS, a huge bottleneck has been capability and crew availability. Engineering a machine that functions as you intend up to this orbiting platform is no small task. Not only do you need it to work, you need it to be able to fit into a capsule while leaving room for all the other research and other necessities for the humans living and working in space. That ride up to station is no picnic either, and while payloads are outfitted with vibrational dampeners, they are still subjected to g-forces that may challenge sensitive equipment.

And the equipment also needs to be easy to operate, as the person tasked with helping researchers conduct their study on-orbit doesn’t necessarily need a PhD in that specific field to complete it. That all said, through the early stages of these facilities, we are finding new and novel ways to mitigate those previous bottlenecks, which is why we test these facilities in the first place! Additionally, NASA is working with Boeing and SpaceX on the Commercial Crew Program, which will launch additional astronauts to the ISS as early as this year – by having those additional astronauts on station, we will almost double the amount of crew time available for working on experiments, or pushing our facilities to their fullest potential. 

Jenny: What are you biggest accomplishments in 2019? And any big plans for 2020? 

Rachel: I have been in this role for over two years now and one thing I have wanted to accomplish here is be a strong advocate for life science research in space through speaking and writing. In 2019 I realized some of those speaking goals and I look forward to more opportunities to develop that skill further. 

One goal I had for myself this year was to see a rocket launch. Believe it or not, despite working on flight projects at NASA for three years and at CASIS for another couple years on behalf of the ISS National Lab, I have never seen one. And just this past March I was able to see one! It was a spectacular sight. The energy from all the researchers who worked so hard to get their science loaded onto a rocket was infectious.

For some of them it had been quite a journey just to get to that point. And the tension around the launch itself was also exciting. Would it go as planned or would it be scrubbed? If so, when would be the next opportunity? There was a lot of wind that day, so we were all a little concerned. The launch ended up being perfect. Plus, I made it under the wire before all the travel restrictions, which I am grateful for as well.

Jenny: How does COVID19 change that plan? How are you adapting to the new norm? 

Rachel: Since outreach is a big part of my job, like many I am recalibrating those efforts to align better with virtual platforms of engagement. I am really trying to frame it as a fun challenge and looking for ways that virtual platforms may be leveraged differently. And I am interested to see how this “new norm” will transform the way we work. 

For the scientists I work with who are planning to conduct research on station, this crisis has obviously impacted many of them. There is a lot of work that goes into preparation for flight and it is crucial to get it right. How the shut-down of labs will impact that prep work is a real unknown and is something we are all keeping an eye on at within the space station program. My personal feeling is that I would rather see projects be successful with meaningful data post-flight rather than a project that meets a certain timeline. You don’t get that many chances to get it right.

Jenny: What motivates you the most for your work? 

Rachel: Doing the crazy, new thing. Pushing boundaries. Learning new concepts. Getting other people excited. The work I do has very little precedent. There is no blueprint for how to turn space into a real marketplace. There is so much trailblazing, which can be hard, but then I have a great conversation or hear a totally new idea and it keeps me going. I’m sure that many in the 3D printing world can understand where I’m coming from. That’s part of the reason I love this community.

Jenny: What is the biggest obstacle before your goal? 

Rachel: With all new ideas, there are skeptics. Some to the point that they may go out of their way to tell you so. I just remind myself that skeptics play an important role, but as long as I have passion for this crazy mission, my role is just as important. Meanwhile, I get to interact with some of the most creative minds in business and science.

Jenny: What do you think are the biggest challenges in bio-printing? What do you think the potential solutions are?

Rachel: Well, I have mentioned vascularization of tissue, which is a big challenge. You cannot maintain functional tissue without a sustained supply of oxygen. Without that technological advance, there is no way we would see transplantable 3D printed tissue go into patients.

Another challenge I am educating myself on is scaffolds, partly because I see opportunity to investigate scaffolds with lower viscosity materials in microgravity.

Jenny: What advice would you give to a smart driven college student in the “real world”? What bad advices you think they should ignore? 

Rachel: Explore the thing that excites you. Create a community around you that challenges you to be better, but also encourages you. I used to leave the volume on my critics too high, thinking everything they said had value. Modulate the volume on your critics to medium. Find what’s constructive and discard the rest.

Jenny: If you could have a giant billboard to promote a message to millions and even billions of people in 3DHEALS community, what message would that be? 

Rachel: Think outside the stratosphere.

Jenny: What was the biggest risk you took in your career?

Rachel: A couple of years ago, I essentially took a year off to find new direction in my career. During that time, I traveled a little bit, volunteered, met new people, and did the deep work to determine what kind of career I wanted and would inspire me. I explored a lot of options and learned so much that year. I am grateful that I had the ability to do that, which was a creative feat of its own, and feel that it set me on a path that feels authentic for me.

Jenny: What do you enjoy in your spare time? What are you passionate about outside of your work/3d printing?

Rachel: I love getting outside. I go hiking and especially love cycling. I had signed up for the AIDS LifeCycle this year for the first time, but it was obviously canceled. That event was kind of perfect for me, it is a good distance and it is for a great cause. I am sad I won’t be able to participate this year but look forward to it next year. Also, through my training this year, I have been introduced to some nice rides in the Bay Area, which I was not aware of before. I look forward to getting back into those long-distance rides again soon.

Jenny: What is your favorite quote? Why?

Rachel: I love quotes. I used to have the Andre Gide quote in my signature line, “You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” When you are working toward some lofty goal, it is easy to get discouraged. This quote reminds me that I am still working towards something great, even when I feel a little lost or overwhelmed. 

Jenny: What does the word “3DHEALS” mean to you?  =)

Rachel: This is an incredible community you’ve created. It is full of passionate, forward thinking people. We are trying to achieve something totally new here, with new technologies, while helping people live healthier lives. And I am happy to be a small part of this adventure.

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