“Stress is a good thing,” says Dr. Joan Vernikos, “if you know how to use it. It is a stimulus. Gravity is also a stimulus. If we do not use it, we die.”
These are some of the mystifying conclusions from a lifelong pioneering researcher, pharmacologist, and scientist, and a daughter of the Greek Diaspora, Joan Vernikos. This month’s feature profiles the first woman and long-reigning Director of Life Sciences at the NASA Research Center. In her trail blazing career, Dr Vernikos has conducted ground-breaking research on stress and the body, has trained astronauts like the 77-year-old John Glenn to adapt to weightlessness, and become a proponent of the growing older in grace, motion, and health movement. Herself an octogenarian, she shares her passion for life as well as details of her biography for the benefit of readers at www.greekamericangirl.com.
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Dr. Vernikos was born to a prominent Greek family in Alexandria, Egypt. Her father was a physician while her mother a homemaker schooled at the French Lyceum. Even though her father was born in 1875 and had her when he was 60 at a time when women were expected to become secretaries or interpreters, Vernikos states she and her sister were encouraged to become educated. “In our family what was wonderful,” she recounts, “was the fact that it was expected without even speaking that we should be educated and become professionals so we didn’t have to agonize over the choice.” The fact that her family had no sons also helped the choice.
It was actually her older sister who took the initiative to register her for university as Vernikos remembers she was a shy girl in her youth. Although her sister paved the way for a career in medicine, Vernikos opted for pharmacology. “The first corpse I saw put me off,” she confesses. She pursued a Masters at the University of London, but opted to stay in the research side of the field and at the prodding of her mentor, stayed on to complete a doctorate.
Vernikos credits her education for forming her reminding us that the only word that means education in Greek is “morphosis,” literally “shaping.” She cites her true Hellenic upbringing and its focus on shaping the individual in the formative years as the foundation for her success. She even merits her mother’s consistent “What did you learn in school today?” for enhancing her communication skills, “as most scientists cannot tell you what they were doing in the lab.”
“It is a unique Greek sense to learn by listening to many others,” she says, “just as is the drive for excellence. Even though the pursuit for excellence and success involves competition, it is less competition with others and more a focus of surpassing one’s own personal standards.”
Vernikos also credits her “extraordinary” mentor, Dr Nora Zainis, a stunning red-headed Greek, the first woman to create a drug to lower blood pressure and the first woman to chair the Department of Pharmacology at the University of London for putting her on the right path. “Mentors, by the way,” Vernikos asides in the usual Greek penchant for digression, “you don’t seek out consciously; they spontaneously converge on their own.” Among many of the things Vernikos learned from Dr. Zainis (besides how to pay a lower rate for a hair style in pricy London by going early) was the importance of creativity. “We knew that when Zainis came in and said, ‘I have been thinking,’ that whatever we had planned for the research agenda that day would change. She taught me that you could change your mind and it would be completely acceptable,” Vernikos says, “you didn’t need to stick to mediocrity because you had committed to do so.”
Eventually Vernikos completed her doctorate and had found a “nice Greek boy” in London to marry. They wound up moving to Columbus, Ohio so that he could complete a business degree at Ohio State, or as she figured “he found a fellowship so I could support him there.”
It was from that junction that she received an offer to join the NASA Research Center in California as her research dealt with stress and the physiological effects of stress hormones. She was to spend the majority of her career at NASA until her retirement in 2000.
Research Take Aways
After a lifetime spent studying stress and gravity, Dr Joan Vernikos has made some radical claims. For one, without gravity on the body, it ages faster.
She found that simulating space like environments with humans for 24 to 48 hour cycles resulted in accelerated aging symptoms. “Without gravity, you grow older,” she says. “We have been designed to be rooted to the earth. In fact, before age 20 at the peak of youth, we use gravity–we tumble, we jump, we push a soccer ball around, we jump into a sports car. But we don’t label it as such, we call it having fun.”
She continues: “The problem is that once we move on to graduate school or work, we stop interacting with gravity, we just sit.”
Long periods of sedentary living, Vernikos claims is the culprit lurking behind bad health. While technology and many modern day conveniences have freed up our time and lessened physical labor, this has taken a toll on our bodies which for millennia have been meant to feel the strains of gravity, pushing and pulling on it. The trick is to find the best way to live with advancing technology without sacrificing health. One of the best ways to do that is by staying in motion, Vernikos contends.
“And this starts with being mindful,” she explains. “We must become aware of our habits, of what we do and what we don’t do, and then actively structure your day and your choices to include more motion.”
Vernikos cites the example of her uncle who lived until 991/2. He purposefully chose to sit in a high-backed wooden upright chair that forced him to keep good posture and stand up more often instead of slinking and slouching into the recesses of an ultra-comfy couch. She advises changing your environment so you can keep upright . She herself used to watch television while cooking at night so that she could keep from sitting.
Vernikos’ goal is in the words of a friend, “to live healthy until I drop dead.” She acknowledges the more holistic view of health in line with the ancient Greek model. It not only has to do with moving the body, but also moving the soul. Staying passionate, fostering your innate curiosity and having a proper attitude are all necessary ingredients for health. “Passionate people tend to live longer,” Vernikos claims.
Dr Vernikos explaining the benefits of doing yoga in space to keep weightlessness from taking its toll on astronauts. Her research showed that the body ages ten times faster without gravity than with.
Health Conclusions Unique to the Greek Community
Dr. Joan Vernikos also has insights into the ways genetics and environment are playing out uniquely to the Greek American culture. She cites that being Greek gives us an advantage in the longevity game. The Greek culture she explains has the genetic propensity for longevity but also adheres to a lifestyle that stretches it. The gift of socializing and politicizing Greeks have is a factor for their well being. “Greeks don’t go to the gym,” she states, “but they interact with one another as human beings; that gives them a health boost.”
Greeks are also very tactile people she brings up. Parietal centers on the soles of the feet and the palms of the hand are some of the most intense in the body. “The sense of touch, so central to Greek culture, provides comfort, creates bonds, and acts as a stimulus that keeps us young,” she says.
Even the noise level that typically accompanies a Greek home makes for stimulation. Vernikos has even half jokingly coined a new ailment, the Deprivation Syndrome. This is defined as the loss of stimulation when one grows up outside a Greek environment.
However, the advantages to health by virtue of being Greek are starting to get eroded. Because we live in America, Vernikos cautions we live as part-time Greeks. Although there are no statistics readily available to prove her point, she has a hunch that Greek-Americans might not be living as long as their native counterparts. A sedentary lifestyle has already begun to set in. Vernikos cited a cross-cultural Japanese study as proof that environment and lifestyle changes have a profound impact on life expectancy. A longitudinal study traced a group of young Okinawan families to Brazil as part of a government research program. One hundred years later statistics on life expectancy were dramatic: the Japanese Okinawan who had moved to Brazil died in their 50’s and 60’s; the Japanese who remained in Okinawa lived beyond 100. If genetics remained fairly constant among this group of people, then lifestyle differences had a large role to play in life expectancy. She suspects much the same is happening to Greeks outside of their native environment.
As for the best thing about being a Greek American woman,” My mother used to say we are better than anybody else,” she states. And the worst? “We take ourselves too seriously, we are too eager to please and be perfectionists. We worry too much about competing with the Pappas'” she says.
In terms of career choice, Vernikos explains the correct question to ask is not what do you want to be when you grow up, but rather what are you good at? What have you learned to do? Can you do it?
Dr Joan Vernikos continues to stay in motion by lecturing, writing, and advocating for healthy aging as part of her Third Age Health campaign. More info and to purchase her book, Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, can be found by logging onto her personal site, www.joanvernikos.com.