Name: Kate Rubins
Affiliation: Whitehead Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
As a kid, Kate Rubins dreamed of being an astronaut and figured flying fighter jets would be the best way to get to NASA. She even went to space camp at age 12 to get a head start on her training. Then she learned the disappointing news that, at the time, the pilot job was off-limits to women.
Secretly, her parents hoped their daughter would choose a safer career, but by high school Rubins had already set her sights on another perilous profession: hunting killer viruses. And this time, there was no glass ceiling to hold her back. Rubins published her first paper on HIV in 1999 as an undergraduate at the University of California at San Diego. In 2001, while a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, she helped the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases create the first animal model for testing smallpox, a scourge that killed millions before its eradication in 1980. Rubins’s work has made it possible to study how the virus evades the immune system in living tissue, a major step toward new medicine and vaccines should terrorists somehow get their hands on one of the two known smallpox samples. It’s this ability to make positive changes in the world that motivates Rubins. “We have a responsibility as researchers to help people,” she says.
After smallpox, Rubins quickly shifted her attention to another scourge, monkeypox, which is now reaching epidemic proportions in Africa. A cousin to smallpox, the virus is endemic to monkeys and rodents, but it can jump to humans during the slaughter or consumption of bush meat, causing facial boils, blindness and even death. During her tenure as a Whitehead fellow at MIT, Rubins spent months in the remote jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo, eating the occasional meal of grubs (her motto: “If people serve it, I eat it”), trying to figure out why the disease appears to be spreading so quickly. The region’s underdeveloped health infrastructure makes infection rates hard to pin down, but an uptick in the number of cases suggests the virus is gaining strength.
To track the genetic evolution of monkeypox, Rubins and her team collect and analyze DNA samples from volunteer patients. Because traditional genetic-sequencing techniques can take weeks and often churn out incomplete results, she helped develop a faster, more accurate method. Typically, scientists extract monkeypox from patient samples and grow the virus on human or monkey cells. The problem is that the virus can evolve in response to its growth medium, so the final population of viruses may bear little resemblance to the ones that are infecting people in Africa. Rubins’s idea was to skip the tissue-culture step and instead rely on a new high-powered DNA sequencer to amplify all the genetic material. She then devised laboratory protocols and algorithms to sort the monkeypox from the human cells. The entire process takes less than five days and generates what Rubins calls an “obscene” amount of genetic data on the virus.
Today, the Air Force no longer bars female fighter pilots. The policy changed in 1993, but by then Rubins had already moved on. She’s never been the type to sit around waiting for the tide to turn. This fall, while her team continues its work in Africa, Rubins will finally get the chance to live out that childhood dream when she joins NASA’s 20th astronaut class, training to becoming one of the first people to fly the shuttle’s successor, the Orion [see page 42]. Selected from thousands of candidates, she says her full-throttle hobbies of skydiving and scuba diving, not to mention her ability to thrive in dangerous places, set her apart. When asked if she’s nervous about the prospect of flying a new spaceship to the moon, Rubins smiles calmly. “Not at all. I want to be the first person to fly it, right? I’m just thrilled.” —Nicole Dyersingle page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.