Transcript: Space4U podcast, Ulyana Horodyskyj

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

I am Colleen Kiernan and with the Space Foundation, and you’re listening to the Space4U podcast. Space4U is designed to tell the stories of the amazing people who make today’s space exploration possible. Today. We are joined by Dr. Ulyana Horodyskyj. Ulyana has always been drawn to adventure and science.


For PhD in geological sciences to crew deep into the Napoli Himalaya, where she investigated the growth and evolution of glacial lakes at risk of flooding. Ulyana went on to complete a post-doc at the national snow and ice data center, where she looked at how black carbon impacted snow. And ice melt on Baffin Island in the Arctic.


She is especially passionate about science education and outreach. After completing her PhD, she launched an adventure and citizen science initiative called science in the wild aimed at getting people outdoors, thinking like scientists and helping to collect scientific data while on expedition with her in the field.


Ulyana is also a member and instructor free citizen science project called project POSSUM, POSSUM, standing for polars, the workable science in the upper Mesosphere. And it’s aimed at educating the public about the upper atmosphere at the edge of space. Thank you so much for joining us today, Ulyana.


Thanks so much for having this. Absolutely. We’re really excited about, um, talking to you today. So obviously you have. Your hands in all sorts of great science. Have you always had an interest in science and space or was there kind of that spark of a moment maybe when you were younger? I’ll say that. Yeah, I’ve always had this interest ever since I was a little kid, so I loved reading, like any books I could get my hands on as a kid, when my parents got me this subscription called secrets of the universe.


So basically every few weeks I would get these packets or handouts through the mail and it would be on some topic in space science. So I would read all those and then place them in a binder. So I ended up with like a half dozen of these binders in the series, but they also like delve into topics, like time travel wormholes.


So that kind of stuff fueled my imagination as a kid. And I also got into science fairs, um, and that was around age 10. So it was really early. Doing experiments. You’ve got a simple stuff playing around in the kitchen with stuff and getting into all sorts of trouble, but I love presenting to the public on science.


So I would say I had a very early start and kind of like sustained interest in this. You mentioned a few moments ago, you launched an adventure and citizen science initiative called science in the wild. Can you explain a little bit to our listeners? What exactly is citizen science and go into a little more detail about the program itself.


Sure. As a citizen, science is all about engaging the public or people who are not actually formally trained in the sciences and scientific research. So I like to say that it can involve everyone from K to gray. No. So from really young ages to old ages, anyone can be involved with it. It’s really important to get people interested in excited about science, because oftentimes we find that that gets lost early on, especially like ages or in the grades, six to eight.


So science in the wild was launched as, as adventure citizen science company to get people excited about science. Learning about it, doing it and not just the science part, but that whole adventure component to it. And also it’s all about fostering curiosity. So the idea behind it is that we take people on these immersive expeditions around the world, and we’re really focused on experiential learning.


So literally like getting your hands dirty. Well, we recognize that not everyone can go out into the field with us. So we also have what’s called the Academy. And so people can sign up for lessons from our experts, but that covers not just science, but like academic and research skills, science fair consultations, because I took part in a lot of sciences communication skills, as well as the arts, because we think we need to include everything.


It’s not just STEM, but STEAM. All right. So science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. And then the last thing we’re working on is creating virtual experiences from actual expeditions for people to be able to actually enjoy from their homes to lots of things, going on multiple ways to get involved in really hopefully get excited about science.


Very cool. And so why is citizen science important in a day and age? Like we’re scientific illiteracy is pretty prevalent. I think it’s almost important to get the public engaged and excited about science because also the more you understand something, the less afraid you are of it. So I’m going to take the COVID pandemic what’s happening right now is a perfect example of this.


So there’s a lot of misinformation out there too, your conspiracy of being spread. But if you have science, the facts and evidence on your side, and really there’s no need to be afraid, you can better vet information and their sources. So really we’re talking about critical thinking. So by engaging in citizen science, people get to learn and apply critical thinking skills.


And the data that’s gathered has an actual end-user typically. So it’s not just collecting data for the sake of collecting data. It’s actually using it for science, but also participants get involved in answering real and authentic scientific questions. So it’s not just, like I said, collecting stuff for the sake of that, but actually going through that whole process and feeling like you’re actually contributing to the project.


And I know that NASA has done some citizen science projects as well. So really what citizen science is, is anybody. Can be involved, right? Uh, there’s no formal training, kind of like you talked about a little bit earlier. Correct. Yeah, exactly. And so for those kinds of projects, like you’re talking about the NASA finds that home.


Typically they’ll take you through a bit of a training before you get involved in the project. Like take a look at these images and can you find what we’re looking for? For example, they’ll take you through the training of that and kind of test you on the images and then you’ll move forward to the project.


So you get to learn a little bit about how it’s done to make sure you know, you’re providing good data and then you go and do it yourself. And how can people get involved with your program in particular? So what page is So it’s literally science in the wild. So that’s why I really kinda liked that name and the pop-up comes up on the webpage.


Lets you sign up for a newsletter. And there’s a few different tabs you can check out. So go ahead and explore on there. Like the lab has previous expeditions where you can read about participant experiences and the publications to see if that’s actually something you want to be involved with physically.


And then going off of that, you can check out the expeditions tab. To see past and upcoming offerings, obviously with the pandemic going on, things are on hold, but definitely reach out if you have an interest in, in any of those trips. And then finally the Academy, like I mentioned, if you want to talk with experts and it’s not just about getting lessons, for example, we do offer private lessons, but if you want to just talk with a scientist or have us talk to a group of people on what it’s like to be a scientist for myself, I offer talks on climbing leadership, being a woman in science and exploration, but definitely reach out.


Facebook, simply Science in the Wild and same for Instagram. That’s super awesome. Now, how long has the program been in place? The program has been in place since 2016. So I finished my PhD in 2015, and I spent a lot of time on the ground in Nepal. And a lot of people started helping me on expedition. Like, what are you doing?


Can we help and take part in this stuff? So that’s kind of how the idea was planted to create the program. And we’re just starting to verge into, um, all those virtual private lessons and virtual experiences. That’s kind of our next phasing. I love that. Do you have a favorite expedition? That’s happened so far and on the other side of that, do you have any future ambitions of the most Epic, wild science adventure that’s going to be coming up?


Ah, very good questions. So I would say there’s a, yeah, there’s a few staple favorites if you will. So, because I spent so much time in Nepal, like the base camp Trek, as well as taking people on glacial lakes. These are lakes that form on the surface of the glacier. So you can go and walk around in this Rocky glacier, and then we take inflatable rafts into the lakes and we do research there.


So that’s a super cool adventure, you know, just very different kind of experience. And then Kilimanjaro, what I like to say is we’d go on off the grid adventures and kind of well-trodden trails, right? So base camp tracks and Kilimanjaro are standard kind of trips that a lot of companies offer, but we take you off the grid.


Do different things like let’s take a raft into a glacial Lake. Let’s go explore, uh, a lava tube, cave and Kilimanjaro, you know, things like that to make it really exciting and different. So I would say as far as upcoming things, I’ll have so many different ideas right now, but I’m really looking forward to hopefully doing something in Iceland, in the footsteps of astronauts, the Apollo astronauts, who did their training there, especially as NASA is ramping up for new moon missions.


That sounds really exciting. And the idea of taking a raft on a glacial Lake sounds right. So amazing, like for it right now. Super cool. So you actually just say, no, I’m in Iceland. That’s where the Apollo astronauts trained. And so I know in 2016, you were actually chosen as a mission commander for an on the ground deep space mission with NASA.


Can you tell us a little bit what that was like? Absolutely. So definitely an interesting experience and also pretty intense. So the program is called HERA stands for human exploration research analog. So the idea behind it is that NASA is studying the effects of isolation and confinement on mission performance, because they’re preparing for these a longer missions to the moon and hopefully Mars in the future.


So studying team dynamics and the biomarkers for stress were really important to them. So HERA is locked in a habitat, um, 650 square feet. Um, and that was spread out over multiple floors. Um, but that was for 30 days. Three other people. And I was the commander. So I was in charge. Uh, so during the time we were in there, we’re on a pretty strict timetable to complete a lot of these mission relevant tasks they want us to do.


And as you mentioned, it was an underground mission. So thankfully we still had gravity and a regular flushing toilet. So our mission tasks included things like virtually flying to the surface of an asteroid to collect samples, all done with virtual reality headsets. So given the amount of time I spend outdoors, I was really curious, like how this would affect me psychologically.


And I would say there are certainly these low moments because they would keep us up almost 40 hours. There’s like the sleep deprivation stretch, and then they’re also taking blood samples. So it was pretty challenging, but overall, a very positive and formative experience, both from the experience of leadership and also working within a team in a high stress environment.


I could definitely see where there’d be a lot of stress in that. And you said it was only 30 days with three other people. So to imagine ours and that mission, um, I can imagine would be good. Good practice. You know, we’re all learning a little bit about that with self isolation right now, but. It’s a little different when it’s 650 square feet.


Right? Exactly. And people you don’t know either, which sometimes makes it easier. Right. Because you don’t know them, but as we get to know each other and you find out the quirks that annoy you and then you can’t leave. Right. So it’s, you can’t go outside at least here with sit on a  porch and you can go out for a walk.


Knowing your neighborhood and how that fresh air and sunshine. So that was, that was challenging. You know, it’s like, I’m used to always like feeling the weather if you will, and the sun. And so they did have, uh, lights that would dam for sunset to then gradually kind of come on for sunrise, because it’s a huge shock, you know, how these fluorescent lights, all of a sudden come on.


Hmm. Um, well much like on the international space station, they also would have like, Our music that they would play, like wake up music, which is really nice. Cause they’re always like when my son calling me on when’s my song lighter. So excited. There’s a lot of data collection also that went on because the whole Herro project had maybe.


Two dozen principal investigators who had different projects that they wanted to test in the habitat. So we were the Guinea pigs, really? So it was a lot to manage. We kept pretty busy normally kind of times where I would feel like a bit homesick or wanting to get outside would be on Sundays when those would be like, well, we have days for working.


And so then yeah, you start thinking about that. There’s no Facebook or emails. You’re kind of wondering what’s going on. Yeah, that definitely makes a lot of sense. And apparently the experience didn’t scare you from the idea of actually wanting to go to space, because then following year in 2017, you applied for the NASA astronaut plan and you were actually one of 120 semi-finalists from a pool of over 18,000.


So that’s really awesome. Did you apply again this year? I did. And it looks like a 12,000 others do as well, which is awesome to see, like, to see that interest. I know you said I wanted to be an astronaut since I was a little kid. So when I saw the call come out again this year. So it was a specifically a call, you know, for the Artemis generation missions to the moon.


I had to give it another shot. The things I’ve been doing since the last application. So one of my favorite sayings is dreams don’t work alone. You do, right? So you have to actually work towards these things. So I’ve been spending a lot of in the mountains, both as an expedition leader, as well as a follower or an assistant guide.


Well, I’ve also started doing a lot more polar guiding and the role of an expedition specialist gaining a lot more technical skills. And in fact, I just came back from Antarctica the first week of March. So when I saw that the application was only that month, I’m like, all right, I got to get on it. I got to put all this stuff together and update the resume and all these experiences I’ve had the last few years.


Well, we did. I definitely wish you the best of luck on that. Super exciting. Thank you so much. So what intrigues you most about space that you did apply? Not once now, but twice actually become an astronaut. My whole life. I’ve been really about experiential learning and very like tangible things. So I, you know, I’ve seen all the photos and videos taken from space, but for me, there’s no substitute for feeling like, really feeling what it’s like to blast off.


And also, what is it like to be weightless? I’ve had a bit of a taste of this, cause I’ve taken part in a few microgravity campaigns through project POSSUM, and also like just being able to see the earth from space because I’m a geologist and I teach classes in environmental science. So really to just be able to see the earth from space.


I think it must be just absolutely stunning and surreal and this life-changing perspective. So I love to be a part of that to see it, document it and share with the world, the importance of taking good care of our planet. We’re recording again. We just, we wish you the best of luck on that because 120, I mean, I have a group of finalists of that many is really incredible.


So, you know, good luck for you on that one. Thank you. Now, you just mentioned project POSSUM, and we kind of talked about that a little bit at the beginning. So again, that stands for the polar suborbital science in the upper meso fear. Can you tell us a little bit about what project POSSUM actually entailed and your involvement in it?


Sure. So project POSSUM is a citizen science astronautics program. So we’re talking about the Mesosphere, one of the upper layers of the atmosphere. There are these noctilucent clouds as these electric, blue really thin clouds that are forming. And basically they’re indicative of a changing climate far below, where we live here in the troposphere.


So these elusive claws are quite hard to study. And so you need suborbital travel in order to actually sample them, take images in the, like the POSSUM is aimed at carrying out this important research. And then they wanted to involve and train the public, both the science goals, as well as the physicalities of this suborbital travel.


So they also have a suite of these on the ground courses. And I have my master’s in planetary geology. The PhD is in glaciology, but before that I did a masters in planetary. So I’m, I’m one of the planetary field geology instructors when it’s, co-taught with, uh, Dr. Jose Otago and he’s a planetary geologist who actually trained NASA astronauts at the same field locales for we’re working with POSSUM.


And so really the goals of the class are to introduce participants in how to conduct field geology surveys like astronauts on the moon, and Mars will eventually be having to do. But we also give students a creative engineering component. So you have to design your own tool to use in the field to answer a specific scientific question.


So I really liked the blend of, for teaching, how to create a map, for example, in the field, how to use all these different tools that we provide you, the astronauts would use, but then you build something too and see if it breaks or not. That sounds like a lot of fun and very educational, but fun at the same time, which is always, I think a great thing.


Yeah, we have a lot of fun out there in the field. You’re also an avid Mountaineer and you’ve kind of talked a little bit about the 30, that your passion for mountaineering and being outside. It’s also intersecting with your love of space and science. Can you tell us how are those two crossing and what’s the importance of that intersection?


So I started climbing in my early twenties and I’m in my early thirties right now. And I absolutely loved it, but every time I’d be up climbing something, I couldn’t help wondering about the landscapes. Like, what are these rocks actually? How old are they, how they changed? Is this landscape, how did it look like millions of years ago?


So I always kind of had that fascination. So when I was working on my PhD at the university of Colorado in Boulder, I was researching glaciers. And I received a Fulbright actually to work in the Himalaya in Nepal. So there’s where I was really able to blend those two passions really combine the climbing, the high altitude stuff with the science, because we’re like you mentioned in the intro looking at impacts of pollution.


Sample on the snow packs. So when climbing at these very high altitudes, are you aware of down suit? I like to call it basically a sleeping bag with arms and legs. Um, and your, your faces covered in these ski goggles at a buff sometimes even need an action. Do you like completely covered head to toe? The air is thin.


So working at maybe 20 to 23,000 feet is kind of the realm I’ve been working in and you still have to function in order to collect samples for the research. I think I really just enjoy both the physical and mental central challenges that come along with the high altitude climbing and the science. And then there’s that other component.


I love that even while I’m here on earth, I can feel just a bit of what it might be like to be an astronaut working on the moon or Mars. Cause you know, I’m basically decked out in the gear. So it’s just a neat way right now on the ground to be reaching for those dreams and training for them. And meanwhile, having a really fun and interesting career.


Well, I’m glad you mentioned that because that’s what I was thinking while you were talking about, you know, these outfits you have to wear because it is dangerous. So you’re, you’re really prepared of what it would be like to work in some of these astronauts suits where you don’t have the same mobility that you would have in your everyday clothes necessarily.


Yeah, no, that’s an absolutely good point. And one of the things we’ll be working out, hopefully with a POSSUM in the future, out in the field, we’ll be wearing spaces in order to conduct some of those field surveys and seeing just how more challenging it is to do that. Yeah. We definitely take it for granted.


I know I’ve seen people do the glove boxes before we have one at the discovery center in our museum and you don’t always think it’d be that much harder. And a lot of those are just. Even kitchen gloves are not as thick as what the actual astronauts are doing on spacewalks nowadays. No, that’s great. And I love the space foundation.


Thank you again for this opportunity. You, we bring students from Colorado college to see what you guys are up to there, especially science on a sphere. That’s so awesome to hear. We love having people come in and, you know, and doing kind of things you’re talking about with project POSSUM and then science in the wild.


It’s really getting your hands dirty. And sometimes that takes these really abstract ideas that we have with. Space and a lot of the sciences as well. And when you can start touching things and feeling them and actually working with them, you know, I think we have found like you have that, it makes such a difference and it really helps those concepts kind of click in our heads of how things actually work.


Absolutely. So what advice would you have for someone trying to get in to space or science and especially if someone is a woman trying to get into these fields. Oh, that’s a great question. You know, I was fortunate to have mentors growing up. And so I think finding a mentor, if you’re really interested in the sciences and you feel like you really want to be getting into research with the academics, absolutely seek out a mentor and I’m available as well.


I love to be able to mentor a pay it forward. No, everything that happened to me early on that set me on this path and also just be prepared to work hard, you know, like for any dream you have, you’re definitely going to have to work for it. So make sure it’s something you absolutely want. I chose the career path working in geology and environmental science because I had a true passion for it.


Same thing with climbing. So don’t just choose a subject. You may not be that interested in. To become an astronaut because the chance of becoming an astronaut they’re quite well to astronomical rise, it’s going to be quite hard to, you want to make sure that you also enjoy your career and your life path no matter what ends up happening.


That’s very important. I think that’s really great advice. And, you know, we hear it time and time again, of having a mentor, having a good network that, that is critical for so many people of making those connections and just pursuing their dreams. Absolutely. So I do want to ask as well, I’m a little curious with, you know, a lot of this geology and the things that you’re doing here on earth.


If you do become an astronaut know, do you have an ultimate dream of, you know, would it be going to Mars and studying the Roxy or going to the moon? What would be your perfect world? If you got into the astronaut class of what, what would you do? Oh, so when I was younger, I always had that fascination with Mars, you know, really wanted to go to Mars.


And especially when you see the Marsh and you know, the movie saw it multiple times. But when I actually think about it, I have really big interest in the moon now. That’s where it all started, obviously like our first extra planetary exploration and then, you know, being able to see the earth from the moon, being able to reflect on that.


Just a very powerful thing. Like of course the exploration part of Mars is very exciting, but for me personally, I feel a draw to the moon. So that’s what I would love to be able to do. So whatever happened. Awesome. Well, it has been an absolute pleasure to speak with you. We really appreciate having you on this show today.


Really an honor. Thank you so much. I really appreciate the opportunity. Definitely. Well, that does conclude this episode of the Space Foundation’s Space4U podcast. Keep your eyes and ears open for more Space4U episodes by checking out our social media outlets on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.


And of course our website at On all of these outlets and more, it’s our goal to inspire, educate, connect, and advocate for the space community because of the Space Foundation, we will always have space for you. Thank you for listening.

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Space4U Podcast: Dr. Ulyana Horodyskyj – Science in the Wild Founder