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Dawn Kernagis - From World Class Diver To Award Winning Scientist at IHMC


A Pensacola based researcher has been honored as the year’s outstanding young scientist. Dr. Dawn Kernagis, a research scientist at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, was given the Young Scientist Award from the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society. The award is for scientists age 40 or younger. "That was an incredible honor because I've known a lot of those people for a very long time. They've (helped) usher me through my career and my transition from being a full time diver to being a full time researcher."

In her career as a hall of fame diver, Dr. Kernagis was a consultant for exploration and research projects around the world and was a manager with the world record breaking deep underwater cave exploration team for over 10 years. If her story looks familiar, it’s because two years ago we wrote about her involvement in an underwater project in the Florida Keys with NASA called Project NEEMO. "We trained for a couple of weeks and then we went and did the mission. The mission was a 16 day undersea mission. We had a crew of 6 people. Two of those individuals spent the entire 16 days underwater, and the other four of us split up those 16 days into two 8 day missions."

A lot of the work on the NEEMO mission was testing equipment for planetary exploration outside a space craft. There were also tests on the humans in the study and how they reacted to being in the habitat for extended periods of time. They found that a person’s telomeres, which are tiny structures on the end of chromosomes, were affected. "Our telomeres actually shortened. These are the caps at the end of our chromosomes, and as we age, they shorten. They think that that's associated with the aging process. So what we learned is that with the NEEMO mission there was a shortening of the telomeres that was actually pretty significant compared to had we been on (the surface)."

Credit NASA
Dr. Dawn Kernagis (second from the left) and her crew mates during the NEEMO mission.

In time, the telomeres returned to normal back on the surface. Essentially, the NEEMO participants aged faster during the mission, but then got better. There was another interesting effect on Dr. Kernagis…her vision improved. "That's been recorded in the past, but it was really interesting to experience it first hand and go to the eye doctor and explain why my vision improved when it's been the same for the last 10 years! It improved by about 0.5 in each eye. So that was really interesting. That’s reverted back as well, by the way!"

Dr. Kernagis says she will continue working on different research projects at IHMC over the next few years, including a couple which are either starting up or just getting ready to go. "We have a project funded by NASA right now where we're looking at brain lymphatic response to simulated micro-gravities. We're just learning that the brain actually has a lymphatic system. And so we thing that that might be impacted when you have a fluid shift towards the head like astronauts do in space. So we want to see how that's impacted and can we reverse that if we need to." She says there is another project funded by the Department of Defense looking at nutrition and how it can affect soldiers in different extreme environments. "(IHMC) is just a fantastic place to be with its wealth of knowledge and experience. And the cool thing about IHMC is that's it is a flat organization, so we all integrate with each other. And that just makes the work that much more efficient and that much more fun, too."

And one more note about the Young Scientist Award that Dawn Kernagis got from the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society. They voted her for the award two weeks before her 41st birthday, so she got in just under the wire.

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.