Growing up on a farm in rural Saskatchewan, Heather Allaway had a somewhat unusual career aspiration — she wanted to become an astronaut.
Her fascination with animals and reproduction sparked an interest in exploring human fertility, which in turn led to wondering about the effects of estrogen depletion for women travelling in space.
Her curiosity about this topic and her accomplishments as a graduate student in reproductive sciences at the University of Saskatchewan recently landed her a place at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France with 120 space-science students from around the world.
When the nine-week program ends this month, Allaway will enter the final year of her master’s research which is focussed on the effects on a woman’s ovaries of stopping ovaries from making the hormone estrogen, work that could be helpful in developing a new kind of morning-after pill.
Her research could also shed light on how a new wave of ovarian follicles develops, paving the way for more effective treatment for infertility.
Since how the body regulates estrogen can have a huge impact on bone mass, Allaway is also interested in finding a way to ensure that women who explore space can be better protected against bone density loss.
“We don’t fully understand how women’s bodies are affected in space,” she says.
“My study isn’t about sex in space, but about the changes in the body that occur before, during, and after pregnancy. Reproduction in space is a piece of the puzzle that needs to be understood before the exploration of the solar system can begin.”
All astronauts lose bone mass when travelling in space. But hormonal contraception creates a dangerous scenario for female astronauts, who often must to go on long-term hormonal birth control that stops menstrual periods and lowers estrogen levels, exacerbating significant bone loss.
“When you think about extended space travel, for example to Mars, you cannot afford to lose a large amount of bone mass,” says Allaway’s supervisor Roger Pierson, U of S professor of reproductive sciences.
Bone metabolism is closely linked to estrogen and menstruation, which is why women and men’s bone densities are different, and why women in menopause have a higher risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures.
By better understanding the mechanism that shuts down ovary functioning and affects estrogen levels, Allaway could contribute to the development of better emergency contraception.
And by learning more about how estrogen encourages the growth of ovarian follicles where eggs are developed, she could help design more effective therapy for women who have difficulties conceiving.
“It’s a simple study with profound implications,” Pierson says.
While in France, Allaway is learning about space travel and planning her research so that it will be relevant to a career as an astronaut.
“For the next generation of astronauts, NASA and the European Space Agency will be looking for physicians, scientists and engineers as well as pilots,” says Pierson. “This is what Heather is preparing for.”
In 2008, Allaway went on a two-week mission at the International Mars Society Mars Desert Research Station in Utah where researchers work in a remote environment reminiscent of the red planet.
Allaway sees a need for more information to educate and empower women around the world to take control of their bodies.
She recruits her own research volunteers, educating them along the way about how reproduction works.
“The best part of my work is getting to know the amazing women who volunteer,” Allaway says. “They give their time to learn more about a subject that is still a touchy topic to most people.”
While Pierson anticipates outstanding PhD work from Allaway, he is just as optimistic about her career in space travel, noting that “farm kids have an incredible work ethic.”
Lisa Johnson is a graduate student intern for the U of S research communications office.
This article first ran as part of the 2010 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Communications office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.