Researcher Sarah Baatout joins Princess Elisabeth Antarctica


How about we get closer to Mars by bringing test tubes and microscopes in the polar station Princess Elisabeth? This is the gamble taken by Sarah Baatout, researcher at SCK•CEN, who immerses herself during 1 month in extreme conditions of containment to better understand how our immune system reacts into space. The data collected will be essential to make progress in the space and medical fields.


Mother of two children, unparalleled ice skater, university lecturer and biologist at SCK•CEN, Sarah Baatout will soon fulfil a dream: joining Princess Elisabeth Antarctica to carry out further research. Next to some twenty Belgian and international scientists, she will depart for a long journey on 16 December. The countdown is on! After all the necessary scientific, physical and psychological preparations, Sarah is about to spend her final days off with her Belgian-English family.

As head of the Radiobiology unit of SCK•CEN, Sarah has been studying the impact of extreme conditions (confinement, stress, isolation, ...) on the human immune system for years. Her research allows us to get a better understanding of how the body of an astronaut works when floating into space and to develop applications which will, one day, enable us to fly to Mars.


The polar station, a space simulator

During this month-long mission, Sarah Baatout will perform research on the impact of extreme living conditions on the human body. The radiobiologist will this time study the station crew who takes on the role of the astronauts. She will take several kinds of samples such as blood before, during and after their stay in Antarctica. The samples will then be analysed at the station and in SCK•CEN’s laboratories. The analyses will provide us invaluable information on, namely, the stress level of volunteers and the effect of this special environment on their immune system. Once there, Sarah will also try out a whole series of drugs that astronauts bring with them during their space missions. The drugs will be tested on their stability and resistance to radiation.

The researcher will study the properties of spirulina in extreme conditions. This green algae which is already used by astronauts as a dietary supplement could have beneficial effects on intestinal flora, often deteriorated by the stress level. 

This research, which enables human space flights, facilitates progress in medicine. The best example is proton therapy which stems from space research. Today’s mission will help develop the medical kit of tomorrow’s astronauts.

The Belgian Nuclear Research Centre also participates in promising research to fight against aids and cancer. In space, the human body is no longer subject to gravity which alters the blood flow in the organism. The blood then gathers in the upper body. By noticing the abundance of blood at the carotid’s level, the organism produces fewer white and red blood cells. The body is said to be immunodeficient. Thanks to on-earth simulation of these conditions, Sarah Baatout participates in several studies which aim to improve radiotherapeutic treatments. All these projects are supported by Belspo.

Sharing her experience with youngsters was crystal clear for this voracious researcher who gets involved in numerous educational projects. “I managed to get an hour of internet every day”, says Sarah Baatout, head of Radiobiology Unit at SCK•CEN, with much enthusiasm. “Through videoconferences, I will make the most of this time to explain to primary and secondary school classes what my mission is. I hope I will pass on my passion for science and give rise to some vocations!”

One of its kind in the world

Since 2004, Princess Elisabeth Antarctica has always been the odd one out in the world of polar stations. Its unusual architecture, able to withstand extreme weather conditions in Antarctica is, to this day, still unique. Another Belgian research centre is responsible for this technological stunt: the von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics, located in Rhode-Saint-Genèse/Sint-Genesius-Rode. Its researchers multiplied tests and models to polish the design of this first “zero-emission” research station in Antarctica. Wind tunnel tests allowed for an efficient assessment of comfort and resistance in relation to snow and winds (gales up to 250 km/h) for various architecture concepts of the station and its position on a rocky ridge.

Read Sarah’s Facebook page to follow her journey!