Local Researcher Helps Space Programme

Based in Hamilton, and working through the Internet, scientist Dr Meryl Wastney is part of the NASA team, studying the problems of weightlessness in space, in order to find solutions for long-term space travel.
It helps that she has spent 20 years working in Washington DC on various research projects and had built up reputation in her field before she moved to Hamilton six months ago.
With PhD in biochemistry from Lincoln University she’s worked for the United States National Institute of Health and Georgetown University Medical Centre, and now runs her own company Metabolic Modelling Services.
Wastney’s expertise is in the field of computer modelling applied to different areas of nutrition.
Her work for NASA is study of the effects of weightlessness on calcium metabolism in the body.
“Astronauts experience dramatic loss of bone calcium, particularly from their weight bearing bones, during weightlessness,” she says.
While the body does replace that bone loss when they return to earth, it’s estimated it takes twice as long as the time spent in space, and she adds, there are questions over the quality of the bone replaced.
“This is really serious problem for longer space flight. At the moment travelling to Mars would take about three years, and the effect on the body means that length of travel is not feasible.
“With bone loss, we know what happens, but we don’t know the timing of how it happens. So we are using calcium tracer to measure when and how quickly the calcium is lost. We want to be able to put numbers on how much calcium is taken up, how it’s utilised or lost, and then use mathematical models to analyse that data.”
Better understanding of bone loss and recovery during space flight could also lead to other developments in the treatment of bone diseases, such as osteoporosis.
As part of team of NASA scientists, Wastney has collected data from cosmonauts and astronauts aboard previous Mir space station flights and her research will continue with data collected on Shuttle flight planned for June.
A whole range of data on human metabolism will be collected on that flight and will be analysed by computer modelling.
She also has several other international projects on the go, in addition to her day job at the Dairying Research Corporation. She says so far distance has been no barrier to continued work in the international scientific community – thanks to the Internet.
“I find it convenient. There is so much on the Internet that it’s easy to stay in touch. With data analysis, it’s easy to ship information, and access to literature is easy, all the major studies and papers are published on the net. Grants and policy are also available. The only thing you don’t do as well are the informal discussions but the phone is good for that, and I will go to the States twice year as well.”
Wastney also points out that most of the research projects were already established and ongoing before she moved, but that no-one objected to her shifting across the world. She adds that American scientists are used to collaborating with others in different states – where distance and time zones are also factor.
And there’s an added advantage in the move to this country. Many of her colleagues have been enthusiastic about her new location.
“They’re keen to come down here for meetings and see some of this country!”
Other projects include studying calcium metabolism in adolescent girls, once again using computer modelling to analyse the results.
Wastney married an American scientist, and it was in fact her husband who prompted the move back to her homeland.
“He was retiring from 30 years with the US government and he suggested we try life in New Zealand. I don’t think he knows what’s hit him yet, one day he was finishing up his job, the next day we were on plane to New Zealand.”
That was six months ago and Wastney says they are enjoying the slower pace of life in Hamilton. In Washington she would spend up to two hours day commuting. However regular trips back to the States will keep them from missing the fast life too much.
There is no shortage of work for Wastney. As well as running her own company Metabolic Modelling Services, at Hamilton-based Dairying Research Corporation she works with group of scientists who are developing “virtual farm ” – computer model of real New Zealand farm that allows scientists to then try out various management practices, simulate changes in climate and generally work out how best to maximise production.
NASA has more experiments planned for its astronauts over the next few years, which she is likely to be involved in. Perhaps the most intriguing project, however, is her work for an American veterinary school – on zinc metabolism in llamas. It seems llamas are big business in the States, and zinc metabolism affects fertility. So Wastney has plenty to be going on with, and may yet expand her company.

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