Not only are we UC San Diego alumnae,
but we also both went to Space Camp
as kids—I’m curious: what captivated
you about space at a young age?
RUBINS: I can remember being fascinated
with space from the time that I was a
really small child. It was always one of
my goal careers. You ask a little kid what
they want to do—I always said “astronaut,
biologist and geologist.” My sense of
imagination was probably a little bit
overactive, but at Space Camp I felt like
I was doing real astronaut training. They
have machines that spin you around and
put you off balance, but one of the most
critical things they teach is working
together with a group to put together
a mission. I had a smaller role in the
mission—I think I was like, backroom
science—but I was really excited to be a
part of that group with my team members.
It’s amazing that you were doing
science even then, and that you were
also interested in biology, which you’d
study at UC San Diego. Where did that
When I was around 15 or 16, I got really
interested in DNA. My dad took me to a
DNA conference at the Exploratorium in
San Francisco, and that was right around
the time of recombinant DNA, and
I became completely fascinated thinking
about DNA inside our cells. I also had
been working for a county public health
program to do HIV education, and they
actually brought in researchers and
physicians to educate you about the virus.
So the fact that HIV viruses actually
integrated into DNA was fascinating and
I thought, “This is something that I really
want to study; this affects human health.
I want to learn more about this as an
Why did you choose UC San Diego?
I was looking for a school with an incredibly strong science program. I knew that
I wanted to be a molecular biology major
and UCSD offered that—a lot of schools
just have general biology, but I was
interested in molecular aspects. It’s such
a renowned research institution, too, and
I never thought, “Well, do I want to be a
doctor? Do I want to be a researcher?”
I always knew. Even when I was 16, I was
like, “I want to be a researcher; I want to
study viruses; I want to study DNA;
I want to study the human genome.”
So I looked for schools that had a strong
research program in those areas and even
did research at the Salk Institute while an
Right, and it’s just across the street.
Absolutely. And the fact that they
integrate so well with UC San Diego—
having that base of an incredible research
community surrounding the university is
a powerful combination.
So from there you went on to Stanford,
and then field research in the Congo,
which is a remarkable trajectory
considering you ended up in space.
But what was the most rewarding of
your work in the Congo?
I really enjoyed living in a completely
different way of life. We spent so much
time with the villagers out there, really
working alongside folks for months.
That’s different than just going through
for a week and collecting samples.
We were trying to understand: How do
diseases spread? Why do they spread?
What are the factors that influence
disease transmission? In order to do that,
you need a long-term, ongoing research
study. But there was also patient care
provided; we had people come from all
over for treatment. So actually seeing the
healthcare benefit and how medical
care—or lack of access to medical care—
in this incredibly resource-poor setting
contributes to disease spread, observing
that firsthand was fascinating.
Did you ever think about the danger
involved, with working with viruses like
Ebola and others?
Humans tend to be really scared of things
that are unknown. We’re not very rational
about danger, so we grow afraid about
things like Ebola or smallpox when,
statistically speaking, it’s not nearly
as risky as just getting in our cars and
driving down the highway. Same thing
with space life—statistically, it’s more
dangerous than working with Ebola, but
you learn to trust your training and the
amount of analysis that goes into safety.
You’re always taking on some kind of risk,
but whether working with the CDC with
smallpox or now with NASA, you trust
the safety review and the processes to
protect people from unnecessary risk.
Speaking of space life, how does
one go from the Congo to the Space
Station? At what point did you say,
“I want to do this?” I’ve always
considered astronauts somewhat
superhuman, like you’re bred to be
(Laughs) We’re certainly not superhuman—
we’re normal humans. But how it came
about, I was actually just talking to a
friend one day, and she was looking at
job applications online, and she said,
you know, “There’s a job application
for being an astronaut.”
Rubins works inside the Microgravity Science
Glovebox, one of the dedicated science facilities
aboard the ISS that provides a sealed environment
for conducting science and technology experiments.