When you think of NASA, you probably think of an astronaut heading for the International Space Station, or a classic “nerd” doing calculations for a satellite from a windowless room. But NASA also does research in biology, meteorology, medicine and technology. Dr. Nitza Margarita Cintrón was one of NASA’s researchers in biochemistry, where she served as the chief of Space Medicine and Health Care Systems at Johnson Space Center.
Cintrón was born in 1950 to a military family in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She spent her childhood travelling through Europe before returning to Puerto Rico when she was in elementary school. Growing up, Cintrón loved to read about science, especially space.
“I always dreamed of being a scientist,” she said. “Space was high in my readings, but it didn’t become a reality until I was in college and then graduate school, when I read the announcement recruiting scientists to the Astronaut Corps.”
Cintrón completed her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Puerto Rico – Rio Piedras and her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from Johns Hopkins University. After graduation, she applied to be a mission specialist in the NASA Astronaut Corps. She passed all its tests, except for the eye exam. For safety, NASA requires all astronaut candidates to have distant and near vision that is correctable to perfect 20/20 vision in both eyes.
Despite her failure to qualify for the Astronaut Corps, Cintrón impressed NASA with her academic skills, and was offered a position as a researcher in biochemistry in 1978. She started the Biochemical Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center the following year. She spent six years working on the Spacelab 2 mission, which launched aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in July 1985 and included the first orbiting instrument to make high-energy measurements in the X-ray.
In 1989, she was promoted to chief of the Biomedical Laboratories Branch in the Medical Sciences Division. NASA also sponsored Cintrón’s medical degree, which she completed from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, in 1995. She also completed an internship in 1996 and her residency in 2000 in Galveston.
After completing her MD, Cintrón served as the director of the Life Sciences Research Laboratories at NASA. She became chief of Space Medicine and Health Care Systems in 2004.
She’s received numerous awards for her work at NASA, including the Johnson Space Center Director’s Commendation and Innovation Award and the Medal of Exceptional Scientific Advancement, the highest science award given by NASA. She was inducted into the Hispanic Engineers National Achievement Awards Conference Hall of Fame in 2004.
Cintrón left NASA to pursue medicine and now serves as an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Her advice to young people (from a NASA press release) is: “In everything you do, always do your very best, be your very best. Everyone has skills and talents, and if you do your very best with them, you will always be a winner.”
Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Email President Emily Larner (email@example.com) for more information.