Educator Features

Profile - Clarence Sams Biochemist
Clarence Sams Biochemist
Biochemist Clarence Sams
Even though his love of flying led him to the sky at an early age, researcher Clarence Sams chose a career in biochemistry over aviation. Now his research into the effects of spaceflight on biological systems enables him to enjoy both worlds every day.

The open sky is a siren song that calls many to a career in flight. Piloting an aircraft demands reliance on one's own abilities and training, knowing that one's own life depends on making the right decisions in response to weather, aircraft conditions, and myriad other details -- any one of which could change without a moment's notice. Only those people who can make sound judgments quickly, take risks willingly, and adapt to changes in conditions easily get to soar above the clouds under their own guidance.

Clarence Sams, biochemist and manager of the Cell and Molecular Research Laboratory at NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, grew up in a family of aviators in Oklahoma. He learned to fly at an early age and planned on following his father into aviation and becoming a professional pilot. But his interest in scientific exploration called him as well, and the skills he had developed as a pilot -- sound judgment, flexibility of mind, and the willingness to take risks -- could serve him admirably as a researcher. Through his biochemical research for the space program, Sams is able to combine his interests and have the best of both worlds.

"I've always been interested in science, in one way or another," explains Sams. He was inspired by his high school chemistry teacher, "a very rigorous fellow...with an incredible presence" who had been an industrial chemist. While working in industry, this fellow had observed that the young chemists entering the workforce were not adequately prepared for their jobs. So, he quit his job and became a teacher, doing what he could to better prepare the next generation of scientists. Sams worked with this teacher as a lab assistant before heading to Rice University, where he enrolled as a chemical engineering major.

One of Sams' strongest piloting skills is his flexibility of mind -- his ability to change directions in response to changes in conditions. Once at Rice, Sams realized that "from the work standpoint, [chemical engineering] wasn't the career that I wanted, and I became interested in organic chemistry and biochemistry. I thought the application of chemistry to life systems was very interesting." He changed majors and went on to earn his bachelor's degree in biochemistry.

After receiving his degree, Sams returned to his first love -- flying -- and went to work as a copilot in business aviation. However, the aviation industry was in a slump; pilots were being laid off, not hired. So, he reassessed his career plans and decided to go back to college for a doctorate in biochemistry.

The day Sams turned in his doctoral dissertation, he made the decision that would eventually bring him to NASA. On a bulletin board near the biochemistry department office was a notice announcing the National Research Council's Resident Research Associateships at NASA. Demonstrating another of the skills he learned as a pilot -- the willingness to take a risk and explore new territory -- he applied for and was granted a research fellowship at Johnson Space Center.

Sams' fellowship lasted from 1984 to 1986, and in 1987, NASA hired him as a research biochemist. Since then, his research has centered on the biological effects of spaceflight at the cellular and subcellular levels. Currently, his research focus is on how immune cells are affected by spaceflight. The immune system acts as a protective shield, blocking harmful microbes and toxins from invading the body and attacking any that manage to get into the body through a wound or another injury. Any malfunction of the immune system in astronauts is cause for serious concern, especially during longterm spaceflight. By better understanding how the immune system reacts to similar stresses on the ground, scientists can develop countermeasures to reduce or eliminate these effects during spaceflight.

Flying and scientific research both demand a large degree of skill, dedication, and commitment. They are not fields for people who like to work from 9 to 5. But they also give an equally large return on investment. "Most pilots fly because they love to fly," Sams observes. "The good ones are always learning. I think that's one of the other joys of this job [research]: you have to keep learning, challenging yourself, and trying to figure out something new. That's part of the professionalism that pilots have, and it's part of the process of doing science. So that's the common ground between those two fields."

Therein lies the secret to Sams' success and his nature: science is both a challenge and a delight. It challenges his intelligence and ability to think outside of the box -- or in his case, beyond Earth's gravity. It delights his sense of adventure, perhaps even as much as flying. And he is not alone in feeling this way. "The other thing that I really do enjoy about my job is the fact that I have a lot of like-minded people around me," he explains. "I get to work with really intelligent, dedicated, interested, and interesting people. It's an intriguing and fascinating team."

For more information about his research,visit:

Published by Space Research - September 2003, Vol. 2 No. 4