With NASA Internship, Nutrition Student Helps to Fuel Astronauts
A lifelong passion for food and nutrition inspired Gabrielle Zimmerman to pursue a career as a registered dietitian. This summer, the MS in nutrition and dietetic practice/RDN student took this interest to new heights, literally.
She interned at NASA’s Nutritional Biochemistry Laboratory where she designed special meal plans for astronauts, toured Mission Control, attended scientific symposiums and more. Zimmerman, also a published author, details her unique experience with The Nexus.
Why did you choose Jefferson?
The University’s new and innovative Future Education Model satisfies the degree and supervised practice requirements to be eligible to sit for the national Registered Dietitian Nutritionist exam and become a registered dietitian. Aiming to assist others in navigating their unique dietary circumstances, I was immediately drawn to Jefferson because of the faculty’s compassion and support and the range of opportunities and connections available in the healthcare field.
What are the best parts of your studies?
I value the opportunity to expand my expertise and abilities by training under dedicated professional dietetic leadership and gaining hands-on experience across diverse settings aligned with the latest trends and demands of the dietetics profession. Notable moments from my studies include being the first graduate student in my cohort to intern with the Food and Drug Administration, the Broadway Dietitian and NASA’s Nutritional Biochemistry Laboratory.
Tell us about your rotation with NASA.
I actively contributed to diverse space nutrition projects within the Nutritional Biochemistry team. This involved presenting to NASA employees as part of a showcase on essential nutrients required to maintain astronaut health during spaceflight. I designed a 4,100-calorie meal plan aligning with space food system criteria while considering additional energy needs for surface EVAs (commonly known as “moonwalks”). I also conducted essential calculations on astronauts’ adherence to International Space Station-based resistance exercise devices for astronaut bone health.
In addition, I attended scientific symposiums and interactive conferences featuring astronauts, lead flight surgeons and other esteemed entities. My involvement in these special projects and events culminated in a more profound understanding of how crucial food and nutrition are in determining the success or failure of space exploration missions.
Moreover, I took a VIP tour of the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility and Mission Control Center led by my preceptor, the Nutritional Biochemistry Laboratory principal investigator and the team’s deputy manager. I also visited and engaged with key experts involved in NASA’s year-long Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog study at the 1,700-square-foot 3D-printed Mars Dune Alpha Habitat. This immensely fulfilling rotation will remain etched in my memory forever.
How did you share what you gained from the NASA rotation with the Jefferson research community?
At the recent Jefferson Nutrition and Dietetics Graduate Research Symposium, I presented research inspired by the rotation, focusing on astronaut gut microbiota, space nutrition and health. The session covered how to interpret gut microbiota research and the current research on potential changes of the astronaut gut microbiota in microgravity. Plus, I covered the specific dietary components that positively impact the gut microbiota and its implications for space food and nutrition.
What’s something people would be surprised to find out about you?
I published the book “When Food Can Kill You: What the World Needs to Know” in 2020. It provides a constructive framework for managing and dealing with food allergies and diet-related diseases like celiac disease in different contexts and helps to improve the quality of life for those who suffer from them daily.