UH Hilo alumnus is lead author on study showing anxiety, depression a major problem in space science community

David Trang — with degrees from UH Hilo in counseling psychology, astronomy, physics, and geology — says the investigation marks the beginning of the changes needed to improve mental health for planetary scientists. 

Researchers working on equipment in module.
Researchers test equipment onboard Zero Gravity Corporation’s G-FORCE ONE aircraft. A study published this month shows the severity of anxiety and depressive symptoms in the planetary science community is greater than in the general U.S. population.(Photo credit: NASA archives)

By Susan Enright.

A University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo alumnus is lead author of a study showing the severity of anxiety and depressive symptoms in the planetary science community is greater than in the general U.S. population.

David Trang pictured.
David Trang

The study led by David Trang, now a scientist at UH Mānoa, is published in Nature Astronomy (June 13, 2024). The study also found that symptoms are more severe for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers than any other career stage.

Trang was an assistant researcher at UH Mānoa’s Hawaiʻi Institute of Geophysics and Planetology at the time of this research and a graduate student in the master of arts in counseling psychology program at UH Hilo. He received his MA in 2023.

He also received bachelor of science degrees in astronomy and geology, and a bachelor of arts in physics, all from UH Hilo in 2009. He served as a peer tutor while completing his undergraduate studies, where he assisted undergraduates in three subject areas: mathematics, chemistry, and physics. He also counseled students individually about studying strategies.

He earned his doctor of philosophy in planetary geology from UH Mānoa in 2014.

Trang’s primary work is in integrating various remote sensing data sets (e.g., spectroscopy, ultraviolet to near-infrared images, radar) to understand the geomorphology on planetary surfaces. But psychology remains a deep interest.

“After reading about so much anxiety and depression in academia, and as someone who loves both planetary science and psychology, I felt like I needed to do something because there are so many people suffering,” says Trang about the study.

Prompted by growing recognition of a mental health crisis within the academic and research communities, Trang and co-authors from UH Mānoa Shidler College of Business, Hawaiʻi Pacific University, Jet Propulsion Lab, NASA and U.S. Geological Survey, surveyed more than 300 members of the planetary science community. The survey requested demographic information and included commonly used assessments to measure the severity of anxiety, depression and stress symptoms.

Symptoms greater among marginalized groups

The authors found that anxiety, depressive or stress symptoms appear greater among marginalized groups, such as women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. And further, when examining the correlation between marginalized communities and considering leaving planetary science, LGBTQ+ respondents were more likely to be unsure about staying in the field.

“Some of my colleagues have left the field of science because the academic workplace was hard on their well-being,” says Trang. “This is so unfortunate because science would benefit from each and every person who is passionate about research, as they could contribute so much to the field.”

The authors hope this work highlights issues that some suspected existed in planetary sciences.

“This work marks the beginning of the changes needed to improve mental health in planetary science,” says Trang. “I hope to continue to unravel what is driving these mental health issues and collectively develop solutions that will improve well-being, which will in turn enhance research quality and productivity. Addressing mental health will inevitably improve diversity, equity, and inclusion, as they are linked together.”

In the near future, Trang hopes to run psychoeducation workshops based on psychotherapy concepts to begin improving mental health in planetary science and potentially serve as a model to improve mental health in the rest of academia.

-See also UH System News, SOEST News, and EurekAlert.

Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

Share this story