Ms. Monsi Roman, a Marshall Center microbiologist, works to ensure safe water and air for the crew of the International Space Station. Roman studies microbes, living organisms including viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites — only visible under a microscope. Her job is like a detective, checking the tiny beings to see how they will behave on the Space Station.
When microbiologist Monserrate (Monsi) Roman came to the United States from Puerto Rico, she never dreamed she’d be a scientist working to ensure safe water and air for the crew of the International Space Station, the world’s largest space laboratory.
As a microbiologist, Roman studies microbes, living organisms including viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites, which are only visible under a microscope. Microbes are everywhere, but most are harmless, and many do useful jobs like help us digest food.
“My job is to be a detective, to determine how microbes will behave under different situations and in different locations, such as the nooks and crannies of the Space Station,” explained Roman, chief microbiologist for the Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS) project at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) Huntsville, Ala.
Everyone who visits the Station comes with his or her own unique set of microbes. And since crewmembers, visitors, experiments and hardware hail from 15 Station partner countries, Roman must study an international, multicultural group of the microbes. She often collaborates with scientists and engineers from other countries.
“Microbes were the first inhabitants of the Space Station hitchhiking into orbit on equipment before people ever arrived,” Roman said. “Each microbe is unique, and if left unchecked, some will thrive and could eventually eat many materials.”
The Station was designed with materials that are microbe-resistant. Temperature and humidity are controlled to discourage microbe growth. Roman helps ensure microbes aren’t a threat by monitoring the Station’s air and water system. She works closely with MSFC engineers who are designing and testing the Oxygen Generation and Water Recovery equipment, a more sophisticated air and water recycling system to be installed on the Station. It will dramatically reduce the amount of water supply vehicles deliver to the Station.
Roman’s fascination with science and living organisms blossomed when she was a child. Her science teachers nurtured her curiosity, encouraged her to participate in science fairs, and provided opportunities for her to work with real scientists. Roman carries on that tradition, helping with classes at NASA’s Challenger Learning Centers and at the agency’s Educator Resources Center in Huntsville. Every summer, she mentors a student who works by her side as an intern at the MSFC.
Roman earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Puerto Rico, where she became so fascinated with microbiology that she washed dishes in the lab before finally being hired as a research assistant. She earned her master’s degree in microbiology at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and joined NASA in 1989.
“As I always tell my three sons and the students I mentor: Don’t listen to anyone who says you can’t,” said Roman. “As a little girl, I never dreamed I would be helping NASA build part of a Space Station. It has been fascinating watching the Station go from paper drawings to a real home and workplace in space.”
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NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) located in Huntsville, Alabama.
NASA MSFC was established in 1960 and named in honor of General George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff during World War II, Secretary of State, and Nobel Prize Winner for his world-renowned “Marshall Plan.”