One day, in her sophomore year, Hannah Middlestead was crossing the 15th Street footbridge when a Blackhawk helicopter swooped overhead, bound for an annual visit to the ’86 Field on the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute campus. Middlestead, then majoring in biochemistry and biophysics, thought to herself, “Whoa! What do I have to study to look at that?”
This spring, Middlestead will earn her bachelor’s in biochemistry and biophysics from the School of Science, but instead of leaving campus, she will continue her studies to earn a co-terminal master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. Combining these fields gives her the expertise to pursue the research that fascinates her: life sciences in zero gravity.
“I’m interested in how life behaves in environments like the International Space Station or on other planets,” Middlestead said. “Science is different in different gravities—in the microgravity of space, and in the gravity particular to different planets. For humans to have a meaningful presence in space, or settle another planet, we will need to understand how that works.”
In an unexpected twist, her studies have returned her to a childhood love of space.
“Who didn’t want to be an astronaut when they were little? I’d always been interested in space, but I didn’t really know where my interest in biochemistry and biophysics would overlap with that,” Middlestead said. “I found out at RPI.”
Middlestead found her path after many years of study and exploration, but always, as she said, along a fortunate trail. Born into a military family in Hawaii, Middlestead moved regularly, living in Washington, California, and Virginia. She arrived at Rensselaer as a freshman with an interest in biology but planning to major in math. Her early education had never exposed her to engineering as a career, so she found herself intrigued by those possibilities as well.
“It was a whole new world, so I tried a little bit of everything,” Middlestead said.
A year as a math major served her well, but it didn’t capture her attention as decisively as her life science classes. By the end of freshman year, she had switched to biochemistry and biophysics, benefiting from the analytical edge she gained through math studies. She was happily devouring the courses required for her major when the Blackhawk flew by.
“I knew I had to find where science meets flight,” Middlestead said.
She found that intersection in the lab of Rensselaer professor Amir Hirsa, who presented his research in class during her Fundamentals of Flight seminar course. After the class, Middlestead spoke with Hirsa and found a spot in his lab. In the run-up to graduation, it is where she spends the majority of her time.
In Hirsa’s lab, Middlestead helped to prepare experiments to be conducted on the International Space Station that explore the fluid mechanics of proteins in microgravity environments. Only in these conditions can researchers isolate specific factors that play a significant role in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Type 2 diabetes.
While she may have been inspired by a helicopter, Middlestead said her interest in flight goes beyond a desire to hover in the air. Rather than a departure from her previous studies her current path combines all of her interests—and may, as well, be a way to change the world.
“Flight is all about fluid mechanics and fluid dynamics,” she said. “If you study those things, you earn an aeronautical engineering degree, but you don’t have to apply it to flight. You can apply it to fluid flows in your body or other places like that.”