Alumna Spotlight: Miki Sode, Ph.D.
Given my curiosity about gravity, I studied physics (with a minor emphasis in astrophysics) for my undergraduate study at UC Berkeley. My first job was an undergraduate research assistant at the Space Sciences Laboratory, where I analyzed spectra from distant stars to understand them.
In my senior year of college, I took an interdisciplinary study class called “Mars by 2012” (nope, we are not there yet!) and learned that a lack of gravity causes many negative physiological effects on living organisms, such as bone loss in astronauts.
Realizing theoretical and basic science are not my forte, I switched to a more applied area and pursued a master’s degree in aerospace engineering at SJSU. During that time, I was working at the Musculoskeletal Biomechanics Lab at NASA Ames under Dr. Robert Whalen, who was studying bone loss in astronauts using computed tomography (CT) and dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA).
Following the closure of the Musculoskeletal Biomechanics Lab, I joined a lab in the UC San Francisco radiology department under Dr. Thomas Lang, who had NASA grants to study bone loss in astronauts. It was then that I realized that bone loss is not just a concern of astronauts—in fact, osteoporosis is prevalent in elderly women, including my mother. This motivated me to pursue my Ph.D. through the UC Berkeley & UC San Francisco Joint Bioengineering program, and I studied medical imaging (specializing in X-ray modalities such as CT and DEXA) and bone adaptation mechanisms under Dr. Sharmila Majumdar and Dr. Thomas Link.
After graduation, I began working at Synarc (which later became BioClinica) as a product manager and then a scientist, leading and managing clinical trials for musculoskeletal diseases such as osteoporosis and arthritis for about five years. However, a “space bug” in me was awakened by the birth of my son and the emergence of the NewSpace movement led by SpaceX and Blue Origin. In deciding to put my son into a day care starting at 2.5 months of age, I had to think hard: If I put my son in someone’s care so that I can work, then I have to be working on something that I enjoy and that I think is important—something I can tell my son, “This is why I had to go to work, leaving you behind, because it’s important for future generations like you.” And I knew that something was in space, where my passion is. I thought the combination of my life science background and my passion for space was a unique advantage that not many others could offer. Realizing that many space shuttle experiments were in the area of life science, I thought I may have a shot.
After a couple of years of networking and researching (and even an attempt to launch my own business), I began working in my current position at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) in February 2017.
What do you do at work?
I am a commercial innovation manager at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), a nonprofit organization that manages the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory under a Cooperative Agreement with NASA.
I wear many hats as I talk with researchers at academic institutions, people at Fortune 500 companies, aspiring entrepreneurs, investors, educators, students, etc. to raise awareness of the exciting research and technology development happening on the ISS. I advocate for leveraging the unique space environment and facilities onboard the ISS to advance science and technology development for the benefit of life on Earth and help bring experiments to the ISS. My multidisciplinary background came in handy, and my portfolio spans a wide range of research areas, including aerospace technology development, remote sensing, agriculture and plant biology, synthetic biology, materials science, and sustainability-focused studies on and off Earth.
What are you most passionate about in your work? Why?
I love working with people, especially enabling and empowering people by helping to bring cutting-edge science and innovative technology development projects to the ISS. I also enjoy thinking about a future pertaining to space where more and more economic activities by private industries take place there. I’m very much interested in making space and its benefits more accessible and inclusive to a larger number of people.
How has your SJSU AE experience helped shape your success?
My multidisciplinary background is helpful when talking about the effects of the space environment and reduced gravity on biological and physiological systems and their implications to science and technology. However, the ISS National Lab is an integral part of the large aerospace community, so it is important for me to be well-versed in the current technological advancements, business climate, regulatory and political affairs, and policy. My SJSU AE experience definitely gave me the foundation and language for aerospace engineering and for me to intelligently navigate in this complex and dynamic community.
How are you making a positive impact in the world?
As a public service enterprise, the ISS National Lab allows researchers to leverage the ISS to improve quality of life on Earth, mature space-based business models, advance science literacy in the future workforce, and expand a sustainable and scalable market in low Earth orbit. As manager of the ISS National Lab, CASIS has an obligation to show the return of investment to the U.S. taxpayers, and we understand that our impact and value to the nation often reach far beyond. To foster a robust market in low Earth orbit, CASIS works to create demand, strengthen and expand supply, and entice investment. Enabling research and technology development on the ISS is foundational in shaping a vibrant and sustainable economy in space.
What advice do you have for aspiring aerospace engineers?
When I was struggling to figure out how to get back into the space industry after being away for almost 10 years, I met a mentor and she told me this: “Being an outsider is your unfair advantage. Embrace it.” That gave me an unshakable confidence while keeping me humble.
Although I followed my curiosity to navigate my career path, and it has been a long and winding road, I’m glad that I took my time to think deeply, learn as much as I could, and reflect on the bigger picture every step of the way. It allowed me to have a unique perspective and connect dots that not many people see. For example, using radio telescopes to look at distant stars, using satellites for Earth observation, and using medical imaging modalities to look inside your body are all about spectral analysis and teasing out meaningful information from the data.
I recommend exploring different areas to gain wisdom and a systems-level perspective—it will serve you well when and where you least expect it.