‘Hidden figure’ studied effects of space travel; still too excited to retire at 80

January 7, 2018 GMT

MIDWAY, Ky. -- Sara Day Evans compares her mother Joyce to the “hidden figures” NASA computational whizzes profiled in 2016′s hit movie starring Taraji P. Henson. The women in the film did the mathematics during the early years of the United States space program.

“Most of her acquaintances and the thousands of people she has fed at her home in Midway, Ky., through the years have no idea the groundbreaking work she has done with NASA,” Sara Evans wrote of Joyce McClendon Evans in a message.

This, then, is how an 80-year-old woman who still works full-time as a University of Kentucky biomedical senior research associate helped make pioneering discoveries about the effect of space travel on the cardiovascular system. She also worked for an Air Force study on the effects of low-level flight.

If “cardiovascular system” sounds a little too high-falutin, let’s break it down. In space, your body changes, Joyce Evans said: You lose body fluid, and the fluid you have puffs into the upper part of the body. The heart is used to pumping blood vertically against a gravitational force; when it loses that gravity, there is no resistance, and more blood is pumped into the head.


“You go up within the first 24 hours ... the receptors are saying, ‘There’s too much fluid in here, get it out.’ You lose about a liter of fluid,” Joyce Evans said.

The remaining fluid stays in the upper body until you return to normal gravity, when the fluid thuds back into the lower body. You may have trouble breathing and feel faint as the body adjusts. Returning astronauts have been known to give jaunty waves upon return to earth, Evans said, only to faint minutes later. That’s why pressurized suits are so important, she said, to help counteract the gravity fluctuations.

Animals can be bred to tolerate and even prefer differing gravitational pulls, Evans said, but it takes about three generations. UK research on the subject used pigs, dogs, monkeys, rats and a centrifuge.

Joyce Evans has also worked on projects such as studying the effects of transporting soldiers in shock on medical helicopters: Did the vibration from the helicopters affect the wounded soldiers? In fact, it seemed to help them, the study discovered, as it helped blood return to the heart. The study used pigs, not actual soldiers.

This is the kind of physiology that Joyce McClendon Evans, 80, has studied for much of her life. The Mayfield native has been in the same department at UK since 1970. She works at offices in UK’s Robotics & Manufacturing building, but her field of expertise is not the physics she studied while young, but what different pulls, tugs and shakes do to the human body -- the physical effects of the physics.


UK’s NASA research program prompted the 1966 expansion of the former Wenner-Gren laboratory at UK to house the 50-foot diameter centrifuge for the investigation of gravity effects on earth organisms, according to a document on the history of biomedical engineering at UK. From 1967 to 1982, research programs in cardiovascular and musculoskeletal dynamics were developed and the NASA research expanded to include a series of rocket flights dedicated to experiments conducted by UK investigators from the Wenner-Gren laboratory.

Although the Wenner-Gren laboratory building was demolished in 2014, mechanical engineering alumnus F. Joseph Halcomb and his wife Joani donated $7 million to transform the Department of Medical Engineering; the college renamed the department the F. Joseph Halcomb III, M.D. Department of Biomedical Engineering, the first such named department on UK’s campus.

Joyce Evans and her late husband, Joel, who died in 2012 at 76, were active in opposing the Vietnam War when they arrived in Lexington from Murray in 1968 to work for the physics department at UK as teaching assistants. “We got ourselves in trouble at that point,” Joyce Evans recalled in 2012; in 2017, she recalled that although the time was troubling, the couple made lifelong friends, some of whom made the trek to the Evans’ Midway home for Joyce’s 80th birthday.

The pair had three children, and found a house in Midway. Evans still lives in the rambling house, where during the recent holiday she was surrounded by visiting family and friends, woodwork by her late husband and the orchids she loves.

Joel Evans turned to woodworking several years after the two arrived and co-owned The Unfinished Universe, which operated from 1972-2001. The joke about Unfinished Universe, Joyce Evans recalls, is that because of Joe’s tendency to talk politics, the slogan of the business should have been “We’re Slow, but We’re Expensive.” Joel Evans also played Santa each year for Midway’s downtown holiday celebrations; both Joel and Joyce have been active Midway-area volunteers. They did the deeply unglamorous tasks that are the building block of civic involvement, working on such issues as planning and zone, watershed watch, park creation, tree canopy coverage and watching out for “progress” that comes disguised as traffic convenience.

For now, Joyce Evans is focused on a new project on physiology and gravity that the European space agency will carry out in Cologne, Germany. She’ll buy her own ticket to get there if she has to, she said.

“We’re going to Mars, and we’re going back to the moon,” Joyce Evans said of the future of space exploration.

She sees the need for a re-conditioning program for space travelers before they return to Earth.

Evans thinks the perfect location for such a re-conditioning station is on the way back: the moon.

“I would retire, but I just want to do this one more study,” she said. ” ... It’s too exciting. I’m not slowing down.”

Charles Knapp, a professor and former director of the Center for Biomedical Engineering, worked with Joyce Evans for more than 40 years.

“She doesn’t really toot her own horn, and she should,” Knapp said of Evans. He recalled that despite her persistence, Evans herself was hampered in applying for funding because of her lack of a Ph.d (she does have a Master of Science degree).

Knapp described Evans as “always in the trenches with the students. I don’t think she realized how many people she has touched. ... There are ways to be successful, and they don’t always have to have a very strict organized structure to get them done. That’s Joyce.”