When Size Matters

By Chad Galts / November / December 1998
November 22nd, 2007
Peter lee '94 knows how to make big events happen in small spaces. For one thing, he works in the corner of a storage room in Miriam Hospital's research wing with two liquid nitrogen tanks backed up against his chair and an industrial-strength refrigerator vibrating next to his computer. For another, the focus of his M.D-Ph.D. dissertation required that he scale down the size of his experiments to fit in the corner of a shoebox-sized drawer on the space shuttle Discovery.

Lee's experiment, which accompanied John Glenn into space this fall, is made up of four sets of 500,000 chicken-muscle cells that Lee has genetically altered to produce human growth hormone. His goal is to see how the hormone, which promotes the growth of muscle mass, works in a zero-gravity environment and then compare the results to how the hormone works under normal gravitational conditions.

His findings, Lee hopes, may one day help reverse the decline in growth-hormone production that accompanies old age for many people. More immediately, his experiment may also be of use to offset the muscle atrophy that occurs during space travel. "Zero gravity has been shown to reduce the production of growth hormone," Lee says, "but no one knows why."

To get his experiment included in Discovery's payload, Lee applied to Instrumentation Technology Associates, a private company that sponsors many experiments on NASA's shuttle missions. Once he had the guidelines, Lee began scaling down the normal laboratory methods and hardware used by his dissertation adviser, Research Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Herman Vandenburgh. "It's the exact opposite of the way things normally work," Lee says. "If you need extra space in a lab, you can usually find it. "

Not surprisingly, Lee, who is twenty-six years old, has been dreaming of becoming an astronaut since childhood. His hope is eventually to put the results of his experiments into practice. Competition to enter NASA's astronaut program is intense, but Lee - who took a year off to attend the International Space University in France - nevertheless believes he will one day be wearing a U.S. space suit. "I'm just going to keep applying until I get in," he says.

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November / December 1998