Pierre-François Migeotte, the flying physicist
1. What is (are) your current job title(s), and what does it (do they) mean?
My current job is as it has been for many years from now: Research Scientist, you could add to that the term “Senior”, Physicist and Principal Investigator. The title is not that important to me. What it represents is that I’m involved in Science and Research and I’m doing what is more a passion than a work. The term “Senior” is just to mention that I’m already doing this for a “little more” than 10 years or that I’m no longer considered as a “Junior”. Principal Investigator means that I’m leading a research project, which is funded by the European Space Agency, and that I’m coordinating the work of other scientists around it and I’m assuming the responsibility for it. The kind of research I’m conducting is focused on the adaptation of human physiology and more specifically the cardiovascular system to the environment of microgravity and space exploration. As a Physicist I’m able to conduct a multidisciplinary research in the field of physics applied to the human physiology.
2. Why is your job important?
First of all the job is important to me because it is based on a passion for space exploration that find its roots in my youth and the dreams of becoming an astronaut when I was a teenager. Second it seems to be important for others (and I’m sometime amazed about it) because I’m interested in understanding the functioning of the human physiology and bringing my knowledge of physics to the field of medicine in a very specific topic that would probably not interest that many people and certainly not the traditional physician. So, I tend to believe that I’m filling a very specific ecological niche in the vast world of Science. My current interest is to develop or revive a technology that is know as Ballistocardiography and which could be used on the ground for the cardiac monitoring of elderly people or patient at risk in their home. The technique requires the environment of space because it is based on the recording of tiny accelerations that are induced by the heart on the human body but which are altered by gravity on the ground. This eventually would be a technology “born in space” for the health of the people on Earth.
3. What led you to that career path?
As a teenager, I was nearly 12 years old when I discovered the first launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia in April 1981. At that time my father showed me the journal papers he kept from the day of my birth: I was born on 17 July 1969 when Apollo 11 mission was on its way to the moon. This was fascinating for the young boy I was and gave me the passion for space exploration. It was not long before I said I wanted to be an astronaut. So I started to read anything related to astronautics, astronomy, astrophysics, and so on. I ended up in learning physics because there were two types of astronauts in the space shuttle missions: Mission Specialist (very often a military pilot) or Payload Specialist (mainly scientists). As my eyesight was not very good I decided that I would become a physicist. Perhaps, this was not the only reason; I was anyway fascinated by the stars, the universe, its formation etc… At the end of my studies at the “Université libre de Bruxelles” I had to choose a topic for my master thesis and this is where I discovered that there was a team lead by Manuel Païva, a physicist, who was working in the faculty of medicine and also on the adaptation of pulmonary physiology to space. I contacted him explaining my passion for space exploration and my goal to become an astronaut and, with a light smile (I was not the first wannabe astronaut visiting his lab), he accepted me and gave me to work on data collected in astronauts during a previous Space Shuttle mission. This was the start of my career in Science.
4. How would you describe your typical work day?
I start every day making a plan of what would be my duties for the day. And the most important thing is that my work day is either a typical day at the office or the lab, or it is a work day on travel “en route” for another interesting chase for new data that will lead me to other typical office days. Anyhow the typical office days deals with managing the long term goals of the research project I’m conducting: this can lead to read and write a lot of e-mails and scientific informations, research papers, technical documents, but also can lead me to write new projects which for I have to document myself and read more information on space exploration, see how the astronauts are living in space and be aware of everything that happens up there in the sky and in the international space station. I have to deal with the data analysis which for I’m programing analysis software in Matlab. I have also the typical administrative duties that are always a bit boring but necessary and inevitable like writing report, controlling our expenses, etc… The chase for new data can be very fascinating: I’m from time to time performing experiments on myself or my co-workers on the ground in the hospital but also in the stunning environment of parabolic flights. I’m also conducting the same type of experiments on astronauts or cosmonauts before and after a long stay in the international space station. For this I have to visit Star-City near Moscow where the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre is located and where part of the training of the cosmonauts and astronauts is organized. Eventually I have to present the results of my research in International Science Conferences or Symposium where I can meet people interested in the same topics and where new ideas and new research projects are initiated.
So it seems that I cannot find any routine day in what I’m doing on a day to day basis, and this is probably what keeps me loving what I’m doing.
5. What is the most exciting thing you ever had the chance to do?
I hope that the most exciting thing is still to come, but up to now I would mention two things: 1) my first participation to a parabolic flight campaign in 1999, where I had myself the opportunity to discover the amazing experience of weightlessness and 2) my first visit in 2001 to Star City (Zvyozdny Gorodok) near Moscow for the first space flight of the Belgian/European astronaut Frank De Winne. For the space nerd I was, this was my first Space Odyssey and a great privilege to enter what was for me the temple of space exploration. A super-ubber geek experience which would probably not have fascinated any of my relatives in the same way it did for me.
6. What advice would you give to your young self?
Find the path to your passion. Don’t go working in an environment where the only thing you bring back home is money, unless money is your passion. So if your passion deals with space science, exploration and astronautics: learn mathematics and physics if you’re not yet proficient in English improve your skills and read and write as much as you can. Once you have found something you’re good at, try to be even better at it and try to be the best in the field. Let also people know that you’re good at something and for that you should have or improve your communication skills. Find your way and look at what the people are doing in the field after 10 years and evaluate whether it fits your long term goals. Find a good team to work with nice people where you will have a chance to grow and don’t hesitate to change after a while to see whether the grass is greener elsewhere. It always helps to have a different point of view.