Meet: Deborah L. Harm, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist and Head of the Neuroscience Laboratories
NASA Johnson Space Center
Who am I?
As a senior scientist my job is to develop experiments that will help
us understand how humans adapt to space and how they readapt to Earth.
There are four other scientists in my lab and we work together as a team
on experiments to study eye-head and eye-head-hand coordination, posture
and walking, perceptions, space motion sickness, and psychological factors.
Some of our experiments are done on Earth in the laboratory or on the
KC-135 0-gravity aircraft (also known as the "Vomit Comet") or in the
Antarctic. Some are done in space onboard the shuttle, and some are done
in space onboard the Russian space station Mir. As a laboratory head,
my job is to oversee all the activities in the lab and to manage the lab
budget. Throughout the year I also give lectures on our research to students
and teachers who visit the Johnson Space Center, to the new astronauts,
and to doctors studying aerospace medicine.
My Career Journey
I am an experimental psychologist by training. I began working here right
after I received my doctorate degree in January 1986. However, becoming
a scientist was actually my second career. When I graduated from high
school I went to nursing school and became a registered nurse. I worked
for a number of years in the surgical intensive care unit at the Cleveland
Clinic Foundation. Eventually, I decided to go back to school to become
a scientist. This took six years of full time school.
I went to Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio for my bachelor of
science degree, and to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio for my master of
science degree and my doctorate. During this time, I continued to work
part-time as a nurse in emergency rooms and intensive care units to help
pay for my education. While I was at Wright State I also worked part-time
with one of my professors who was doing motion sickness research in collaboration
with NASA scientists at the NASA Ames Research Center in California.
When I first came to NASA, most of my research involved studying motion
sickness and medications to prevent motion sickness. My research has gradually
expanded to include the many different areas I mentioned earlier. One
of my biggest responsibilities (and most exciting) is developing a large
dome virtual-reality system with other trainers to help astronauts preadapt
to some of the changes they experience in space, including space motion
Likes About Career
What I like best about my job is learning so many new things from the
experiments, designing new experiments, and working with other scientists
all over the world. What I like least about my job is all the management
and administrative "stuff."
There were many people, including my teachers, who influenced me at different
times in my life and in different ways. First, I would have to say that
my father's faith in my ability to do and be anything I set my mind to
and this undying support of my career goals throughout my life had the
greatest influence on my desire to reach for and attain those goals. Second,
I had many teachers who encouraged me, expected (demanded) my best efforts
in my studies, and gently nudged me to try to do just a little beyond
what I thought I was capable of doing. Finally, the person who influenced
me specifically to become a scientist - and who was primarily responsible
for my ending up at NASA - was one of my undergraduate professors, Dr.
When I first met George my primary goal was to get a bachelor of science
degree - period. However, George decided I had "The Right Stuff" to make
a good scientist and took on the responsibility of making sure I got there.
This was no easy undertaking for George as I was very resistent to doing
many of the things he knew would be important experiences to prepare me
for graduate school and ultimately for a career in science. I will always
be grateful to George for his persistence and his unwavering support.
I was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1949. Almost my entire family still lives
in and around that area. I went to nursing school in Hamilton, Ohio and
began my nursing career in Cleveland, Ohio. I moved to Texas in 1986 to
begin my science career here at the Johnson Space Center.
I like Mexican, Chinese and seafood the most. One of my favorite things
to do is to have dinner with friends in a nearby area called Kemah where
there are about eight different restaurants all right on the water. I
enjoy eating outside and watching all the different kinds of boats out
on the water. Someday I hope to have a house on the water and a boat of
Some of my other interests include music, art, planting flowers in the
spring, and playing with my two Miniature Schnausers, Rocky and Kasie.
According to Rocky and Kasie, "Dogs Rule and People Drool." In keeping
with that attitude, they have trained me to let them go outside whenever
they stand at the door, to give them a treat every time I leave the house,
to walk them every Saturday and Sunday, and to give them a doggie cookie
every night at precisely 9:00 p.m.
My Future Plans and Goals
I plan to continue my science career at NASA for probably another five
to 10 years. I have accomplished a lot already, but there are still many
more interesting experiments that I would like to do, and that I think
will contribute to the science and medical communities as well as to human
exploration of space. I will also be continuing my work on developing
the human research facility (all the experiment hardware) that will support
research on the International Space Station (ISS). I hope I will get to
be one of the first scientists to do an experiment on the ISS.
Whenever I decide to retire from NASA, I am considering starting one
or two new careers (part-time of course). One possibility is to become
a professor and teach at a university. The second possible career is to
write children's books about how people's bodies react to the microgravity
environment of space.