Meet: John T. James, Ph.D
NASA Johnson Space Center
A toxicologist is a person who studies poisons. As NASA's Chief Toxicologist,
I am responsible for studying chemicals that could harm people in spaceflight
and on the ground as well.
In the Shuttle/Mir program, my primary concerns include airborne contaminants
that have accumulated in the Mir over years of operation and the risk
of release of chemicals from Shuttle/Mir experiments, operating systems,
or overheated electronic circuits.
It is my responsibility to set astronaut exposure limits for potentially
harmful airborne pollutants. The National Research Council's Committee
on Toxicology reviews all exposure limits set by my toxicology group at
Johnson Space Center (JSC). One challenge I face right now is how to reconcile
NASA exposure limits with Russian exposure limits, which are often much
stricter than NASA's.
In cooperation with Russian experts, my group also collects air samples
from the Mir and the shuttle to determine crew members' exposure to pollutants.
Air samples are brought back to JSC, where we analyze them by gas chromatography
and mass spectrometry. The Russians conduct their own analyses as well.
We are working on methods to analyze air pollutants aboard the shuttle
(and possibly Mir), and we hope to fly a prototype analyzer as early as
STS-81, a shuttle mission scheduled for launch in December.
When I was very young I wanted to be an astronomer, but the practical
limitations of that career led me to pursue medical sciences instead.
I have advanced degrees in analytical chemistry and experimental pathology,
which are both cornerstones of toxicology. After spending many years in
graduate schools I made the natural choice of toxicology as a way to earn
I found inhalation toxicology particularly interesting because of the
challenge of exposing test animals in well-defined ways. In the early
1980s I began working for the U.S. Army on the toxicology of chemical
warfare agents. In the late '80s I came to NASA to be technical lead for
the agency's toxicology program.
The best preparation for this kind of job is to develop an analytical
or scientific approach to problem solving, rather than simply acquiring
a specific body of knowledge in school.
The best part of my job is working with other scientists to develop
scientific reports. I enjoy the lively discussions with my colleagues,
the data analysis, and finally the day when the work is published. What
I dislike about my job is having to prepare program budgets when total
funding levels are not clear and everyone is fighting over money.
I am a person who likes to run fast, grow flowers, fish with my kids,
hear a good sermon and give hugs. People probably think I am crazy to
run like I do in the hot, humid climate of Houston....
My teacher in the fifth and sixth grades greatly spurred my interest
in science by showing his own interest in science and spending many hours
after school helping us build electronic devices, learn codes and so on.
And I recall a specific experience that began my lifelong interest in
astronomy. When I was eight years old, a neighbor set up a Newtonian reflector
in his front yard to observe Saturn. Its eyepiece was far off the ground
so it was awkward for me to see into it. But somehow I did, and the beauty
of the ringed planet, magnified perhaps 200 times, was something I'll
I grew up in Wichita, Kanas and lived there for about 20 years. (My
parents still live in Wichita, which is now a city of 300,000 people.)
In my home town people could see stars at night and had telescopes; hence,
my early interest in astronomy.
I now live in Clear Lake City, near JSC. I have been married for almost
20 years. My wife Donna and I have three children who keep us busy. Alex,
age 13, excels at the euphonium in the school band. Laura, age 11, is
an excellent swimmer. And Austen, age 4, enjoys fishing and cap guns (he
is our only native Texan). Since the deaths last year of our dog Buffy,
who lived with us for 14 years, and our hamster Spike, we are left with
only one pet, a rabbit named "Frisky." Frisky likes to eat too much to
be very frisky....
I hope to work at NASA at least until the International Space Station
(ISS) is nearly complete. Much of the work we are now doing on real-time
air pollutant analyzers will be used on the ISS, and I look forward to
using the tools my group has created to manage air quality. This effort
represents a new era in spacecraft air-quality measurement.
If I stay with NASA any longer, it will be because the agency has a
clear mandate to put a sustained human presence on the Moon and lay the
foundations for human exploration of Mars. If I leave NASA, I would like
to begin another career outside the field of toxicology, perhaps teaching
science to high school students, teaching astronomy in a small college,
or running a hardware store.
A goal I have today is that some day I would like to discover a comet.