Craig Kutz is enrolled in the MD/PhD program at the Medical University of South Carolina
MEDICAL UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA’S NEWS CENTER | MAY 26, 2015
Ever since he was a kid growing up in a farming family on the outskirts of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Craig Kutz dreamed of being an astronaut. “I’m kind of obsessed with NASA,” he said. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is America’s space agency.
So Kutz, now a student at the Medical University of South Carolina, was thrilled to be chosen as one of four crewmembers for a NASA Human Exploration Research Analog mission. The crew spent two weeks in a hangar at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, on a simulated trip to an asteroid, while researchers monitored behavioral and biological responses to everything from sleep deprivation to communication problems.
“It was so much fun,” Kutz said. “People keep saying, ‘weren’t you stressed?’ Honestly, it was stressful, but every single part of it was fun. I thrive under pressure.”
There’s no doubt about that. Kutz is not only earning both a medical degree and a Ph.D. at MUSC through the Medical Scientist Training Program; he’s also a scuba diver who volunteers to clean the Great Ocean Tank at the South Carolina Aquarium, and in his spare time, he earned his pilot’s license.
As an undergraduate at Minnesota State University Moorhead (2009, biology), he was a quarterback for his football team while maintaining a perfect grade point average. (He also was an honors apprentice who conducted research for four years while at MSUM, and in 2012 he and several other students co-authored a paper with professors Joe Provost and Mark Wallert in Cellular Oncology, a highly ranked cancer research journal.)
Their work found an important new relationship between a hormone found at high levels in lung cancer patients and the control of acid levels in and around cells. The students work was supported by an NIH grant to better understand how proteins that regulate pH contribute to aggressive lung cancer metastasis.
“I’m not one to stay idle,” Kutz said. “I really like to do a lot of things.”
He’d like to become a NASA flight surgeon, so the mission was a chance to see what that might be like and put what he’s learned so far at MUSC to good use. “Because of my role as an M.D. – Ph.D. student, I’m trained in biomedical research. My main task on the mission was scientific operations.”
NASA’s goal was to assess medical capabilities, behavioral health and other factors during a space mission. “They’re trying to evaluate biomarkers and develop an algorithm to detect stress in astronauts,” Kutz said. “So we experienced a lot of the stressors that astronauts would be exposed to on a long duration spaceflight.”
Those stressors included the workload, the confined space, isolation and a lack of sleep. “At one point I was up for 36 hours straight,” Kutz said.
The crew also tackled difficult tasks assigned by NASA. “We worked with a robotics payload, and as a team, we figured out how to respond to challenges faced in rover assembly and testing.” NASA uses rovers, or space exploration vehicles, to travel on other planets.
Throughout the mission, cameras recorded the crew’s reactions and the team provided blood and saliva samples. As chief medical officer, Kutz did ultrasounds on his fellow crew members, sending images of target areas in their bodies to NASA. He also took their blood pressure and heart rate.
Everyone, including Kutz, had daily psychological evaluations as well.
The mission crew also did flight simulations, analyzed meteorite samples and tested systems and iPad applications that will be used on the International Space Station.
In the two hours a day Kutz had off, he sometimes watched the TV show “Cosmos,” featuring astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. “He’s one of my heroes,” Kutz said.
Back at MUSC, Kutz said the mission confirmed his interest in aerospace medicine.
“It was an awesome experience, and it really gave me a good perspective on how research is conducted at NASA on a medical level,” Kutz said.
Professor David Bernanke, Ph.D., was not surprised that Kutz was chosen for the mission. “He leads by example, and the example he sets is one of striving toward excellence,” Bernanke said.
“His fellow students can see in Craig what can be accomplished with hard work and perseverance. He’s a great representative of the quality of our students and a wonderful ambassador from MUSC.”
Kutz hopes to land an aerospace medicine residency at the University of Texas Medical Branch and a fourth-year aerospace medicine clerkship at NASA. “Every scientist at one point dreams of being an astronaut,” he said.