NASA, Bacteria, Verbs, and Breast Cancer

How I wish I could tell you that breast cancer has been cured. And how nifty it would be to tell you that NASA cured it. Nevertheless, I can pass along encouraging news. NASA technology has contributed to new understanding about the nature of breast cancer. This will supplement further research and—perhaps—lead to the desired cure.

With the above paragraph, the question of certainty is all in the verb phrasing. Could vs would vs can vs has vs will. My two dictionary apps refer to these words as auxiliary verbs. They support action verbs like tell, contributed, and lead. Auxiliary verbs indicate the relative gravity of their action verb counterparts. What do I mean? “NASA could contribute,” has less gravity than, “NASA will contribute.”


NASA’s Role in Medical Research

Good news for us Earth-bound folk. When it comes to diseases like breast cancer, NASA’s ability to contribute is not a question of can or could. NASA’s contribution is a matter of has and will.

In 2011, NASA personnel prepared the Juno spacecraft for launch in a clean room setting to avoid contaminating the spacecraft with bacteria. This significantly reduces the risk of contaminating Jupiter’s moons, potential carriers of life, when Juno arrives next month. Image Credit: NASA, Kim Shiflett

The above image shows a common scene at NASA: scientists and engineers dressed like surgeons. Just like surgeons, they zealously try to avoid depositing bacteria on their subject. We want our robotic explorers spick-and-span when they reach potentially life-harboring destinations. What does that have to do with breast cancer research?

The same technology used to study bacterial contamination of spacecraft has now been used to evaluate the role of bacteria in breast cancer. I’ll spare you my crude summations and encourage you to read the following story:

NASA Technology Applied in Breast Cancer Study

I went through the above story and pulled out a bunch of verbs and verb phrases, specifically ones tied to sentence subjects. Here they are laid out in the order in which they appear in the story. For fun, let’s pretend what follows is an award-winning contemporary poem. I’ll even give it a title. SPOILER ALERT: the poem’s conclusion is quite strong:


The Choice Verbs of Breast Cancer Research

have more to do with
were designed
was led by
have previously documented
contains … and … secretes
don’t yet know
was then analyzed
will continue to propel
could contribute to
is needed
have known for
can trigger


The Verbal Path to Discovery

As I isolated the above verb phrases from NASA’s story, my mind was drawn to the auxiliary verbs. They play a pivotal role, in effect measuring the confidence of the medical research’s findings.

In the writing of scientists and scientific communicators, discovery is a wonderful and desirable noun that seems to wait expectantly beyond a fleet of purposeful verbs. Some of these verbs hedge. Some speak with absoluteness. At their most responsible, these verbs remind us that science is a process. No one study is a complete conversation. In fact, each individual scientific study is somewhat like a verb, providing direction and measured strength to the ongoing quest for knowledge.

Author: Jake Christensen

Jake Christensen is a Michigan-based writer currently exploring his Mormon heritage through poetry. Also a space enthusiast, he has attended NASA Socials at Glenn Research Center and Goddard Space Flight Center. In addition to past performances in regional and educational theater, Jake periodically appears in Moth StorySLAMs.

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