Associate Director for Science Management
Johnson Space Center
Associate Director of Biological Sciences
CLASS OF 1966
Over the years, Dr. Neal Pellis has met with Neil Armstrong, talked extensively with astronaut John Glenn, and given a presentation to President Bill Clinton. Now he helps lead NASA’s efforts to study the effects of gravity on cells in order to explore how space travel affects the human body. Under his direction, experiments are conducted to engineer tissue for research, use microorganisms and cell design to create new drugs, and prepare better models of human tumors. One line of research, for example, tries to determine how T-cells, key players in the human immune system, are altered in low-gravity environments like the international space station. This information could help scientists learn how to strengthen human immunity to fight disease or temper it to accept transplants. Several of Pellis’ experiments have been taken into space on NASA space shuttles.
Pellis attributes much of his success to the education that he received at Washington & Jefferson College . “W&J gives you an education that’s a preparation for a whole life, not just the first five years of your career,” he says. “There is a total experience that you get there that stays with you forever.”
Pellis fondly remembers the academic “family” he developed during his years at W&J, which he describes as one of the strongest aspects of the small school. “You can’t hide from these professors or from others in the community, so immediately you start to become somebody,” he says. Pellis especially remembers Dr. Homer Porter, professor of biology, as a man who was well read in and out of science. “He had a pattern about his speech that was flowing and interesting,” says Pellis. “He obviously kept my attention because when I look in my notebooks from his classes there are no doodles.”
Pellis’ motto is “You never know what you’re going to need to know, so try to learn everything that you can while you can,” an excellent goal for someone who has held positions in the military, medicine, and scientific research. “This type of school will be the mainstay for thinking people in the future,” Pellis says.