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Reaching for the Stars

Biology senior Esther Putman has combined her love of biology, astronomy and engineering to follow her dream of a career in aerospace medicine.


By Madison Dyment

When we’re young, we are often told that "the sky's the limit" for our future. There are a certain few, however, who dare to reach beyond the sky and to the stars, and UK biology senior Esther Putman is among this group.

Originally on a pre-med track, Putman, a Lexington native, had a plan set for her future, but she was never fully convinced it was the right path for her.

"When I was growing up, I was always good at math and science, so everyone around me pushed me towards medicine," said Putman. "But my dad is an engineer and I grew up doing little engineering projects with him. I always wanted to combine the two, but didn’t really know how."

In 2014, a combination of an experience at the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program and a little bit of fate lent itself to Putman’s aid.

"In the program, I was assigned the major of astronomy kind of by chance. I absolutely fell in love with everything about space," said Putman. "Don’t get me wrong, I always loved the stars and especially the mythology behind them, but I didn’t grow up dreaming of being an astronaut like some kids. However, that summer really showed me how amazing space is."

From there, Putman had no questions about where her future lay.

"I started looking for ways to combine all that I loved—medicine, engineering and space—and stumbled on aerospace medicine," she said. "It was like that was what I wanted to do with my life all along, I just hadn’t realized it before. I definitely know that this is my passion."

Although a major in biology is not a typical route that comes to mind for a student set on studying outer space, Putman’s goals align perfectly with her major choice. 

"Biology is the foundation of all of it!" she claims. "Understanding the physiology of a human on Earth is essential to start thinking about what changes in space. I know that we can learn a lot about biological systems by studying them in the unique environment of space." 

The connections between the specialties extend further than just practical application. Putman began to piece together connections between health professionals and engineers concerning topics of human space travel. "I knew that if I could equip myself with knowledge from both fields, I could help to bridge that gap and create a common language. It’s going to take strong collaboration between a myriad of industries to send people to Mars," explained Putman.

From there, Putman threw herself into every possible experience that could get her closer to her goal. Her passion for aerospace medicine and desire to learn and explore this field shone through and set her apart from her peers. 

"Quite simply, Esther is exceptional," said Jennifer Osterhage, assistant professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Biology. "Her interest in and dedication to her future career is among the top 1 percent of students I’ve known, which is over 4,000."

Faculty are not the only individuals to notice Putman’s incredible potential. She has received numerous honors while at UK, including being selected as an Otis A. Singletary Scholar, taking part in the BS/MD accelerated pre-med program through the UK College of Medicine, and becoming a Chellgren Fellow in her sophomore year. 

Externally, her achievements are even more impressive. Putman has worked with Space Tango in Lexington since February 2016, a service helping to facilitate research projects in microgravity aboard the International Space Station. 

"I assist in planning and designing biological experiments, making sure NASA gets the right toxicology and hazards information, and conducting validation experiments to ensure system success on orbit," explained Putman. "My favorite thing about Space Tango is how much they focus on using what we learn in space for applications here on Earth."

In the summer of 2017, she was selected to be part of a group of 10 students from across the country to participate in the prestigious NASA Space Life Sciences Training Program, working at the Ames Research Center near San Francisco, Calif. 

"One of the biggest health problems that astronauts face in spaceflight is bone density loss, losing as much as 1 to 2 percent of their total bone density each month they spend in space. I was working in a lab studying the mechanism behind why this bone loss occurs, and how we might be able to prevent it," said Putman. "It was an amazing program, and of course an absolute dream to work at NASA. I presented a poster of my research at the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research (ASGSR) conference in Seattle, Wash., in October 2017, and was selected for a lecture presentation as well."

One of the most formative experiences for Putman came this past summer, when she was selected as a Brooke Owens Fellow, a nationally competitive fellowship designed for women with passion for aerospace and/or aviation. Through this opportunity, she was connected to work for Vulcan, a company in Seattle founded by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. The experience had her tackling problems to provide sustainable solutions to issues like conservation, climate change and equity. Putman worked under the mentorship of Dr. Kris Lehnhardt, an aerospace medicine physician, in the space systems team, utilizing satellite Earth observations to monitor topics including illegal fishing, poaching and coral reef health. 

"This fellowship has been one of the best experiences of my life, giving me a network of supportive women in the industry that I had never had before," said Putman. "It can be hard to feel like you’re the only one passionate about what you love. This fellowship completely changed that for me."

Her work with Lehnhardt impacted Putman on many levels besides simply providing her with a learning experience.

"Before I met Kris, I had never met anyone with an aerospace medicine career. With his mentorship, I’ve realized that my career is more than just a crazy dream—it can become my reality," said Putman.

This process was not easy. There are very few women in the aerospace industry and Putman struggled with moments where combining her two majors seemed impossible, but her past experiences have helped her gain confidence to forge on with her passions. 

Another passion for Putman is her desire to encourage others from Kentucky to become more involved in the aerospace industry. She feels that her roots are a strength, not a hindrance, and that more should embrace their Kentucky heritage.

"Every internship I have and every conference or awards dinner I travel to, I get to show people what an aerospace professional from Kentucky looks like," said Putman. "I get to help set the standard for what our state is capable of and help show people a perspective of Kentucky that is often times very different from what they believed before."

With a past as illustrious as this, it’s easy to dwell on previous accomplishments, but Putman is diving full-force into her future. She plans to design life support and human health protection systems that allow for long-duration spaceflight, but she is not content with only helping behind-the-scenes.

"Before, I would never tell people I wanted to be an astronaut. I assumed they would think I was crazy or childish," said Putman. "Through my experiences, I’ve met astronauts who have told me I’ve got what it takes, and because of their investments in me, I can now say it loud and proud: I want to be an astronaut." &