UCL Research Domains


Together We Create - Series 2, Episode 2

Off-world living

The practical challenges of surviving harsh environments and limited resources in outer space have long been a focus of space research. But how might asking questions about living differently in space help us meet the challenges of living differently on earth? In this episode, we explore this with Dr Aaron Parkhurst as he discusses his multidisciplinary approach to studying ‘off-world living’. From Martian homes to exercise trampolines and funeral practices, we discuss the benefits of bringing together researchers from anthropology, architecture, art, design, cardiovascular science, molecular biology, psychiatry, and sustainable construction to open thinking about living well and the need, not only to survive, but to thrive. 

Aaron Parkhurst is an Associate Professor in medical anthropology at UCL.  His work combines interests in science and genetics, cyborgs, the body and technology, and immigration, to address the complex challenge of how we might live differently on earth and beyond. 

Aaron Parkhurst, Lili Golmohammadi 


Lili Golmohammadi  00:13 

Hello and welcome to Together We Create a podcast about collaborative social research. My name is Lili Golmohammadi, and I'm a collaborative researcher working across Design, Technology, and Social Research at UCL. In each episode, I'll be talking to an academic at UCL to find out more about how and why social researchers collaborate with researchers outside of their own discipline and hearing about them and their research as we discuss the benefits and challenges of taking a multidisciplinary approach.  

Lili Golmohammadi  00:47 

In this episode, I'm joined by Dr. Aaron Parkhurst, an anthropologist who has studied and worked in the UK, the US, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. He completed his MSc and PhD in Medical Anthropology at UCL. And before this, he studied and worked in Molecular Biology in genetics labs in the US. And he joined UCL in 2013, first as a researcher studying trust, risk and uncertainty among economists. And he is currently an Associate Professor in Medical Anthropology. Aaron's work combines interests in science and genetics, cyborgs, the body and technology and immigration to address the complex challenge of how we might live differently on Earth and beyond. So Aaron, well, that is quite a range there. Can you tell us a bit about the interests and events that have shaped your path to the researcher that you are today? 

Aaron Parkhurst  01:39 

I think I started off as a as a young undergraduate student in Boston, in Massachusetts at Brandeis University. And I worked for a NASA funded laboratory funded by the Johnson Space Center. And they were planning this science for a manned mission to Mars, which is what it was originally funded for. I was I was studying as a as a young biologist and an anthropologist. But they were answering what I found later, many years later that they were answering these really deep questions about mind and body connections, and about how the body changes in different radically different environments to what you might find on Earth, and how that has reciprocal changes in the way that people think and the way that people move. And it also answers deep philosophical questions that sort of philosophers and social scientists have been asking for centuries, about mind body connections. So that's sort of what kicked it off. I worked there for two, three years, while I was an undergraduate student and became interested in molecular biology and medicine. I shadowed a heart surgeon for six months as as part of a work study program. And and where the, the medicine was fascinating, and at the time, I was considering becoming a surgeon myself, which oh, wow, in the end, I decided I did I did not want to do. But those questions about the body in that space undergoing this would what it is, is actually a very traumatic event raised some more really interesting questions about mind and body connections about the nature of healing about the body's relationship to an environment. So I took these sort of experiences with me and discovered medical anthropology. almost by accident, I was bartending my way across Europe, a bit of a bit of a lost soul for a couple years trying to sort out what exactly wanted to do with my life in my early 20s. And the the bar I happen to work at was in Holborn, around the corner from here, and there were posters up for medical anthropology seminar series at UCL, they were held at the British Museum at the time, we didn't have this building that we're in that wasn't even built yet. Um, I found these advertisements in Russell Square, where I used to go to, to read on my breaks. And I thought that that looks really cool. And I went and I found it was this sort of brilliant mix I didn't know existed between philosophy on mind and body and its connections to practical applications for clinical encounters, to the way that that health and well being are constructed in general around the world can combine genetics and molecular biology, and you can combine sort of philosophies of cognition, and you can bring them all together, and you've got this beautiful discipline. So I became hooked, I drank the Kool Aid, and that was 17 years ago. Oh my goodness. And, and I never thought I'd be here 17 years later, but here I am. 

Lili Golmohammadi  04:40 

You are! And I heard you now run this series of talks, is that right? 

Aaron Parkhurst  04:45 

I do. We in our department, we take turns now as senior staff of organizing and running these medical anthropology seminar series. So yeah, I met my PhD, my masters and then eventually my PhD supervisor at the British Museum.  I was just there because they were free to attend. So I came in crashed it and got to talk to him for drinks afterwards. And then he convinced me to apply and, and then here I am.  

Lili Golmohammadi  05:11 

Wow, I love the serendipity of that story. So you never know people just just keep going to things keep, keep wondering, it's not as aimless as you think. So I hear you've been a space geek since you were five years old. And as an undergraduate, you're an intern at the NASA Space Lab, and you now teach a module on extra terrestrial anthropology. So can you talk for a moment about why an anthropologist is interested in space?  

Aaron Parkhurst  05:38 

Yes, I I, I'm a self described space geek. I had a picture of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, it's an old promo photo of them sort of American nationalist type of thing at the time above my bed when I was a little kid. My parents would drive me I'm from Atlanta, Georgia, originally and we would drive to Huntsville, Alabama Space Center, which was like a four hour drive from Atlanta when I when I was a kid. And that was sort of what we got to do on on, on birthdays. And then later, again, through a series of serendipities. I ended up at this some, you know, this lab at Brandeis run by James Lackner. And Paul DiZio, working with Shauna Kaplan, an amazing researcher funded by Johnson Space Center is, as I've mentioned, but I actually think that as amazing is that science is about developing the frameworks for how we can live in outer space, things that we have to do to our body and minds in order to live well, not just to, to survive, but to thrive. As we leave the planet, I actually genuinely believe that the good research in outer space living has direct translation to how we might live differently on Earth. To tell us something about constructs of health and well being and the body across the planet.  

Lili Golmohammadi  07:00 

We'll come to that now - you were awarded seed funding from UCL Collaborative Social Science Domain for a project with a rather intriguing title Off World Living Analogue Pilot Projects: Determining their value for the far and near future. So could you talk for a moment about the focus and aim of that project? 

Aaron Parkhurst  07:19 

Yes, we were very grateful to the Collaborative Social Science Domain for that, for that seed funding. I think the motivation behind it was that we wanted to think about how to live differently in outer space. And in doing so, as I mentioned before, meet these meet these challenges of perhaps living differently here on earth through rapid urbanization and modernization, but also ethical commitments to dealing with climate change how we might live better, while also living smaller, in smaller spaces, taking up less space, living more communally. And I think having worked with with architects and designers who are who designing Mars and lunar habitats for NASA, and for the European Space Agency, I call these and I work as consultants on some of these projects, that that actually the design of say, a lunar habitat, or a Martian habitat to live well in these spaces in very harsh environments with very limited resources. Actually, there's an awful lot of lessons that we can learn from designing those spaces from the ground up. And the thing is, is that space provides a context in which we have almost a tabula rasa, we've got this this blank slate, where we don't have to necessarily engage with conservative, orthodox, earthbound structures, those ones that we sort of hold on to dearly when we create built environments here, but also the ones we don't even know because we live in this earthbound system. And you don't even know that the biases and assumptions you have in living, because you can't see yourself from within the system. So space forces us to think differently, we have to gravity is different. Resources are different. The time delay just between communicating between Mars and Earth is 17 minutes. So So you have to think everything differently. And because you're forced to you can create these sort of radical different ideas about built environments and habitats and how to live and even how to move your body in those spaces. Yeah, exercise everything. And it can only be done. We argued through a multidisciplinary lens, which is what you know, the motivation for turning to the Collaborative Social Science Domain was for it can't be done by just an anthropologist or a biologist, or an architect from the Bartlett or an artist from the Slade. It has to be done in conversation because we're looking at an entire human project. So that was the motivation in applying for this seed fund. And we got it and so we we held some events to try and tease out what might this future living look like. 

Lili Golmohammadi  09:53 

Your project drew together a team who had a very broad expertise, why did it need that particular mix of researchers from anthropology, sustainable construction, architecture and cardiovascular science? 

Aaron Parkhurst  10:07 

I think this this combo, first, it's spread across four faculties between the Bartlett and Social and Historical Sciences and Risk and Disaster Reduction and Architecture. And I think it was just an awesome team because we had social science, we had medicine, we had people who are experts in the built environments and sustainability. And we had people who, you know, understood risks of living in harsh environments. And, you know, we had been in conversation about this. Now, for a number of years, I worked on projects with the with these people in other capacities. And we thought, well, let's use this collaboration and just make it bigger. What this seed fund was primarily used for was to build a community of interest of people who have a wide range of expertise. So we took these four faculties and use that as an excuse to get as many other faculties involved as we could we held these events in partnership with the British Interplanetary Society.  

Lili Golmohammadi  11:04 

Oh, wow. 

Aaron Parkhurst  11:05 

Which is, yeah, in Vauxhall, they're really, you know, they're a really sort of neat society here in London that have shaped UK space industry for decades. And we had a call from micro analog projects. 

Lili Golmohammadi  11:18 

Actually, can I just quickly ask you about that? Because I've been reading around your work. And it feels like, you use that to mean several different things. So my understanding is, on the one hand, it refers to something that simulates a space mission in full on Earth. But I also get the sense of it as more than this that it describes prototypes and models, but also social science methodology for helping with the challenges of offworld. Living, is that right?  

Aaron Parkhurst  11:46 

Yes, there's a number of projects there. It is true that the, we often take the idea of the analog as an ethnographic project that it can mean an awful many things depending on the research and methodologies you want to engage with for this particular project. We call it micro analogs. I'm not sure yet still, if it's the best term, yeah, but it's the one that we came up with and that we engaged with. And that is, we weren't coming together to design an entire sort of lunar habitat, to model something. What would be an earthbound habitat based off of a lunar habitat? That is a massive project. This project was smaller in scope. But we still wanted people to contribute to this idea of what What elements do we need to think about? If we want to think about living differently offworld and in turn thinking about living differently on Earth. And so when we invited people to these workshops, what we wanted was them to think of just some micro element, hence the micro and micro analog. Yeah. So what tiny piece could you contribute to and so we had architects who are designing new stairwells based off 3d printing technology, say.  

Lili Golmohammadi  12:58 

That was for Martian gravity, is that correct? And trampolines for Martian gravity!  I really want to know about the trampoline. 

Aaron Parkhurst  13:08 

Well, we had tried to think of what you know what, what kind of exercise do you need to do and on the International Space Station, astronauts have to exercise about two and a half hours every day, for their, their bones to calcify your body gets rid of what it doesn't need and your muscles atrophy. And yeah, it's it's a problem. And, and it's taken space medicine, you know, many decades to understand how to mitigate against these effects successfully for long duration living in lower Earth orbit. But it's not very fun to exercise for two and a half hours every day with resistance training. So you're trying to think if you're going to live on Mars, you know what a third of Earth's gravity you're going to have to do something to keep your body from falling apart. Part of that comes from clothes say we had a we had some a member of the micro analogues project who designs microgravity wear, her name is Anna Talvi and she's also here, a PhD student at UCL funded by the European Space Agency, I believe these clothes that help protect your clavicles and keep you know, keep your your your core intact. But then I suppose other researchers were thinking about okay, well how can we make exercise fun that can engage your core, your legs, your you know, your your quads, your glutes, your upper body, but also contribute to cardiovascular activity and health. All in one which is also compact takes up a very minimal amount of space, but can also engage with with different gravitational forms. 

Lili Golmohammadi  14:33 

And you can do sort of different kinds of acrobatics, and how did you bring together - can you say a little bit more about how you brought together the ideas and the methods of these different research areas together in the project and what insights did these multidisciplinary aspects offer for, you know, how did you bring those methods together? 

Aaron Parkhurst  14:52 

I think the the, as an anthropologist, my interest in this was promoting the idea of well being. And as I mentioned earlier, this idea of what do we need not just to survive in these environments, but to thrive? And thrive it's a funny word because we call it an ethnographic term because it's open to construction. What thriving means to one person is completely different from what thriving might mean to another. The reason why we think through thriving and well being was because we didn't want just biologists to come and talk about cardiovascular health. We didn't want just architects to come and tell us about well, this space is conducive to sort of life support structures. We didn't want pragmatics. We have pragmatics in the space industry, and they're, they're very good space engineering at UCL and abroad has come up with the most extraordinary things. But we wanted something else. We wanted people to think about the condition of being human. And that includes engineering and architecture and molecular biology and cardiovascular health. Yes, but it also includes art, and psychiatry. 

Lili Golmohammadi  16:05 

Oh, yeah. You had architecture engineering. Yeah. I mean, it was just phenomenal. Really, the it sounded so exciting. And yeah, I'm kind of jealous. 

Aaron Parkhurst  16:15 

It was! We had researchers who developed funeral practices, in deep space, you know what to do with a dead body, which sounds a bit - it sounds a bit morbid. But, but actually, when you thinking about the limitations of resources, but also how you memorialize something, and give respect to kinship? Um, these are, these are questions about how to live well. 

Lili Golmohammadi  16:43 

Yeah. Yeah. So that kind of leads me into my next question. So often in multidisciplinary collaborations, you've got varying interests and concerns, priorities between the team members. So can you share something about how you found common ground? 

Aaron Parkhurst  16:59 

I have to say, too, I'm hoping I can say this to work to our credit, and I'm hoping my collaborative collaborators agree with me, I found in this particular project, it was easy. I think everybody had had a deep curiosity of, okay, well, what might this question look like outside? You know, outside our own discipline? That's not always the case?  

Lili Golmohammadi  17:25 

And do you have any? I mean, that's another question I have. I'm curious to know whether you've experienced any, any challenges or tensions? 

Aaron Parkhurst  17:32 

I have. And I'm thankful that at the moment, at least, with my collaborations at UCL, I think, I think people have been very supportive of interdisciplinary research. But when you start working with researchers in industry, sometimes there are challenges, especially within the space industry, with its pragmatism towards engineering, and its sort of problem solving mentality, which has served it very well over over the decades, but see a problem solver, get it fixed. But as a result, it's very different for people to see outside that box. And they're keen on supporting social science, I find many collaborators within this science industries, and other social scientists, as well. But I think there's often some challenges communicative challenges. So and that's not only their fault, it's also the fault of social scientists who have to develop their own capacities and language to speak outside their own discipline. So we have we have a responsibility to actually make our work applied. And I think it naturally is, but you have to speak in though, in terms of helping to solve problems. It can't just be academic jargon within your own discipline. And, and even if you think you're doing that, well, once you get into those meeting rooms, or start designing projects with people or working on the ground, you find oh, maybe maybe we're not speaking in a way that's that's English for for, you know, for people who maybe work outside anthropology and conversely, maybe they are not speaking in a way that a social scientist can possibly understand.  

Lili Golmohammadi  19:09 

So there's something there about laying the ground, like taking the time to lay the ground, but how would you, so in that context, you just spoke about, if you could go back and do it again, like how can you, how might you lay that groundwork to, you know, to make that process easier in future?  

Aaron Parkhurst  19:23 

I'm not sure. I think that there is something to be said. When you're in your own discipline. You can think about furthering that discipline. It's something that we demand our PhD students constantly think about when they're developing their final arguments and going into a viva, how have you furthered the discipline? I think when you start approaching other researchers in industry, I think it's okay to have that in your back of your mind as well. But to also think about how can I help people solve problems? How can this research help me help other people and it can only make your own sort of academic interests better, I think. But if you start from that framework first rather than just sort of developing theory or, or developing the discipline.  

Lili Golmohammadi  20:08 

I really like that. I think that's really solid advice. Thank you. And it was like, I was wondering, actually, in your offworld, living research, whether there ever any clashes between it's, it's kind of picking up on what you're just saying, the more speculative work that tends to come from design in art and the work of Space Engineers. So you and a colleague published a paper in 2021, where you explored utopian architectural designs for human on Mars. And there was a bit which made me chuckle were the architects you were following. They presented their work to the space radiation experts. And the reaction of this expert was these all look great, but you're all going to die. So how do you bring such different areas of expertise together? 

Aaron Parkhurst  20:46 

I actually think that that just shows the value of I'm sorry to preach about it. But I think that just shows the value of interdisciplinary research. The architects that with whom we worked on this project are, you know, they're, they're amazing thinkers, but they also work within sort of rigid structures and conservative structures of architecture. They're actually quite radical people. But like I said, you can't sometimes see the system from within the system. So they knew this. And to their credit, they held these workshops, that the ones that we focused on in this paper that they held these sort of expert panels and consultants have multidisciplinary experts to say, Hey, we've designed this project for NASA, for this Centennial Challenge for Martian Habitats. Can you tear it to shreds, please, which isn't a normal thing? You know, it's not it's not common that people people do that. And it just so happened, they had one of the world's best space radiation experts who they invited, she has been thinking about this topic for 40 years. And she was able to tell them your design, which looked like it looked like you know, Southern California villa, it was beautiful in some of the renderings even had dart boards which looks great, because you're throwing darts with a third of Earth's gravity that sounds sounds great fun, but does it work? 

Lili Golmohammadi  22:07 

So I'm finally I'm hoping you can offer some advice for social researchers who want to collaborate like you with neuroscientists, architects, cardiovascular specialists, artists, designers, etc. What are the qualities and skills that have helped you move between the different research, research perspectives that are central to your collaborations? 

Aaron Parkhurst  22:29 

I think one of the greatest challenges as a social science, I say this hesitantly, but as a social scientist is when you, you come with other, you start meeting with people from other disciplines, and you start talking about anthropology. And people say, why does it matter? Like, what are you talking about? Or why - why would you do - why do anthropology I think, have an answer. Have an answer prepared for that? It helps. 

Lili Golmohammadi  22:57 

I think it helps you as well, doesn't it? By being able to explain it to other people? You can - you have to explain it to yourself to explain it to other people, but by being able to explain it to other people, you you understand it better yourself. 

Aaron Parkhurst  23:10 

Yeah, I think we have to drop our ego a little bit, which is, is often challenging for academics. On the you know, the fields sort of demand that you put up this iron wall, but drop your ego a little bit, listen to other people, and hopefully you're around people who are going to listen to you. It's not always it's not always the case. But I think the benefits of doing that of getting outside your discipline. I think they're pretty radical.  

Lili Golmohammadi  23:39 

Finally, do you have, drawing on all of these points, great points that you've shared, what would you say your top tip is for sharing with other collaborative social researchers?  

Aaron Parkhurst  23:50 

Gosh, I don't know. For lack of poetics, I say, find your fellow geeks, find them. I guarantee you, whatever, whatever geek means to you, your fellow geeks will exist in every discipline. Find them and, and you'll do great. 

Lili Golmohammadi  24:08 

That's wonderful. Aaron, thank you for joining us today. It's been really great talking to you. 

Aaron Parkhurst  24:12 

Thank you very much for the opportunity. 

Lili Golmohammadi  24:14 

Thank you. That was really, really fun.  

Lili Golmohammadi  24:21 

You've been listening to Together We Create. This episode was presented by me Lili Golmohammadi and edited by Cerys Bradley. I was joined today by Aaron Pankhurst. If you want to find out more about his research for the podcast series, please follow the links in the description. This podcast is brought to you by the UCL Collaborative Social Science Domain