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Jamie and the space squid. It sounds like a bad sci-fi movie but Ipswich High School graduate Jamie Foster was a key player in the launch last week of bobtail squid into space.
The 128 squid, and some tardigrades or “water bears,” were loaded aboard a SpaceX shuttle that blasted off Thursday, June 3, to rendezvous with the International Space Station.
The supply run was successful and, because of the unique nature of the cargo, the trip made headlines.
Now a professor at the University of Florida, Foster said on the phone Monday that the mission was to study the human microbiome, the collection of bacteria, fungi and other life forms that live on us and inside our bodies.
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The scientist grew up in Ipswich and graduated from Ipswich High School in 1988 before heading to UMass Amherst to study zoology and animal biology. Studies continued at the University of Southern California for a Master of Science in Biology before she earned her doctorate at the University of Hawaii.
The problem with studying the human microbiome in space is that people step onto the shuttle fully loaded with their microbiological passengers, Foster said.
The bobtail squid, on the other hand, has just one, which can be added in space. “That makes it a little simpler to understand,” she said.
The squid are small and have a special relationship with bioluminescent bacteria. In return for a sugar and amino acid solution, the bacteria emit light to reduce the squid’s shadow. Night feeders, the squid could cast a shadow from moonlight or starlight, and be spotted from below by predators. The light-emitting bacteria reduce that shadow.
Foster’s experiments looked at the effect of microgravity on microbes and the project is called Understanding of Microgravity on Animal-Microbe Interactions, or UMAMI.
Foster said a company called Techshot built special equipment that automatically started the experiment and added bacteria. “It didn’t require much astronaut time,” she said.
“We just got the data back,” she said Monday. “Everything looks really good.”
Asked about her school years in Ipswich, Foster credited a young teacher named David Dalton for spurring her interest in science. Dalton, of course, would go on to become high school principal.
“He always did a great job trying to get people to come in and expand our little minds,” she laughed.
Foster also credited family friend and former NASA employee Jim Kernan, who was the dad of her high school friend Laura Kernan. Other influences in Ipswich included Mrs. Ebbinger in middle school, she said.
In UMass, one of her professors was the late Lynn Margulis, ex-wife of acclaimed astronomer Carl Sagan. “She put me on this trajectory, a career in science,” Foster said.
After earning her masters, Foster prepared to enroll in the PhD course in the University of Southern California when her PhD advisor moved to Hawaii. Foster upped sticks and earned her doctorate in the Aloha State instead. That is where she got her start with the bobtail squid, she said.
And the squid stayed around. Her lab’s mascot is Professor Octavius Squidby, a stuffed toy that provides ” emotional calmness and stress relief.”
Although her family has left Ipswich — her brother is in Winchester while her mother is in Vermont — Foster said she likes to visit town. “I still try to go by and go to the Clam Box,” she said. “I have a lot of good memories of Ipswich.”
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