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Meet: Kenneth A. Souza

Chief, Life Sciences Division


photo of kenneth souza


Who I am:

I am the Chief of the Life Sciences Division, an organization responsible for conducting and facilitating research on the role and influence of gravity on living systems. We utilize specialized equipment and a variety of biological species on the ground and in space to conduct our research. We also help scientists from all over the world use our unique equipment to conduct their studies about gravity and to apply what they learn to the needs of society, e.g., new knowledge and educational materials, new technologies, and solutions to biomedical problems.

The Life Sciences Division is comprised of about 60-70 civil servants, 200 onsite contract personnel, students and postdoctoral scientists. Our annual budget is about $25 million which includes the cost to conduct research in space as well as build the equipment that supports the research. New and exciting discoveries and challenges are a major part of NASA's Life Sciences research program and a major source of energy and enthusiasm for anyone lucky enough to serve as the Chief of the Life Sciences Division.

My Career Journey

I decided to major in bacteriology, and molecular biology was very much of interest to me. By the time I reached graduation, I thought I would probably go on to graduate school. However, at that time, the Vietnam War was at its peak and graduate school was not an option.

It turned out that when I applied for jobs to see what was out there, NASA offered me a position. It sounded very exciting -- working with extreme environments in exobiology. They also offered a deferment and an opportunity to continue my education, so that became the job that I pursued. There were a few other offers that I had that just were not as attractive -- the National Institutes of Health, and the Central Intelligence Agency, of all things! When comparing exobiology, studies of human disease, or germ warfare, exobiology won out.

I began my career in the laboratory as a technician working in the exobiology area. Exobiologists at the time were interested in organisms living in extreme environments, particularly as those organisms pertain to possible survival and growth on other planets. For example, at one time we thought that Venus was not as hot as we now know it. We thought that organisms that lived in hot environments on Earth might tell us something about the kind of organisms to look for on Venus. We also looked at organisms that might survive in the Jovian atmosphere (on Jupiter). Such organisms would have to live their whole life cycle in water droplets (an aerosol) and be able to tolerate highly alkaline environments, a lack of oxygen, and high concentrations of ammonia. While we could find organisms that could thrive in highly alkaline conditions, we were unable to prove that multiple generations of organisms were possible in an aerosol, especially in the presence of large amounts of ammonia.

Life in extreme environments was the order of the day. I was somewhat involved with the Viking Project, which were the probes we sent to Mars to search for life. In the mid-1970s I went to NASA Headquarters for a year as a career development participant and served as the technical assistant to the chief of the planetary biology program. When I came back to Ames I moved from the laboratory environment into management, managing a joint U.S./U.S.S.R. biosatellite program. This was a program in which we flew U.S. life science experiments, mainly those experiments that used animals, plants, cells, and tissues on the Russian biosatellites. We began doing that approximately every two years at the invitation of the Russians. My job was to coordinate the U.S. package of experiments and to integrate them with the Russian scientists who were participating on the same mission.

During the 1970s, we didn't have a lot of opportunities to fly life science experiments. Therefore, the program with the Russians was a very good program for the U.S. science community because it gave us access to space and the Russians weren't charging anything to use their equipment. All we had to do was provide funding to the U.S. principal investigators, develop their experiments, and take advantage of the opportunity to fly on the Russian biosatellites; the satellites flew every two years and orbitted for a duration of about three weeks.

The biosatellite program was a collaborative effort in which the Russians felt their program was benefiting from the involvement of the U.S. scientists. Their scientists did not have a lot of access to Western technology and ideas. Therefore, this joint program was a way of infusing the latest science advancements, ideas and technologies into their institutes.

It was a program that involved a number of other countries, as well. So it truly became an international gathering of the "best and the brightest" in the space biology and medical community. To this day, we are still flying biosatellite missions.

After I managed the US/Russian biosatellite program for about five years, I was selected for another administrative job in the life sciences research program conducted at NASA-Ames, which was primarily ground-based research. I was selected as the deputy division chief for biomedical research. The division included a group of about 45 life scientists engaged in a broad spectrum of research involving the role and influence of gravity on living systems, with a special focus on the biomedical problems affecting human space flight. We studied a variety of them, from cardiovascular deconditioning to the weakening of the bones and muscles that occur when humans go into space and no longer have Earth's gravity pulling on their bodies.

About 1986 I moved again, from the ground-based research program back into the flight program and was given the job of managing the Space Life Sciences Projects Office. The office was responsible for managing the development and flight of all U.S. life sciences experiments that were going to be flown in space.

I held that position for about eight years, during which time we flew well over 150 experiments onboard the space shuttle including the major Spacelab missions, such as SLS I and II and the international microgravity missions. It was an exciting time and a lot of new science data were acquired.

I've spent 30 years in this field, and I'll probably spend a few more, but I'm not quite sure what the future holds. "Proceed as the way opens," my mother-in-law used to say.

Exobiology and space and gravitational biology have been extremely exciting and fascinating fields to be in because of the diversity of activities that are going on, the number of fascinating people that I get to meet and interact with, and the constant influx of new knowledge.

You don't have to be an expert in different fields to understand them. Part of the job that I have is to take what is found on a technical level and translate it so that the public, the Congress, and the people who control the budget can understand the significance of what we're doing and why we're doing it. Additionally, I make sure that the information coming from the scientists gets translated in a way that young students can appreciate. We're trying to instill the excitement of science at the youngest levels possible.

We believe that if we don't get the students in the elementary grades interested in science we've lost them, that is, by the time they've reached high school it's pretty hard to redirect them back into science.

NASA has been a great place to work until very recently. Like many government agencies we've become wrapped up with downsizing and restructuring, which are not fun things to go through. But it has been a very stimulating place to work, with a lot of freedom to explore ideas and concepts.


Influences

My career kind of fell into place. I started out as a math major at U.C. Berkeley and then became excited by a very stimulating professor I had in biology, and then became more interested in the biological sciences.

I think I started asking questions about a career in math the same way I was asking questions about a career in biology thinking, "What would I actually do with a career in math?" At that time in the early 1960s, computers were just beginning to come out and there wasn't a computer science field to go into. So the opportunities in math, as explained to me by my advisor, seemed pretty dry for me. Theoretical math, blackboard calculations and teaching really didn't excite me that much.

On the other hand, looking through a microscope at life that I didn't even know existed in a drop of water, the various forms and shapes, the things one does in a laboratory to investigate that, and generating new information was very exciting to me. Everyday was something different in the laboratory. The techniques we used were fascinating and results were sometimes instantaneous. Things could be grown, and in the case of bacteriology, an experiment could be done in a day or two. We didn't have to wait the lifetime of an elephant if we were studying lifespan.

My first biology professor at Cal was an Australian, so I may have been captivated a bit by his accent because that always attracts me. But his own enthusiasm for the field was just as contagious and he was one of the few professors I ever had that could exude such enthusiasm. He was excited about the world we lived in and the way that we've evolved, the new frontiers, and the new things that science was opening, especially in biology. We were understanding how the genetic system worked, how cells divided and regulated themselves, and how the whole machinery of the cell was put together. It was really a fascinating time to be involved with the biological sciences.


Personal Information

I don't think I really put on a facade when I come to work. Certainly, I have to change the way I operate. I grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood in East Oakland. It wasn't like East Oakland today, which is a lot rougher. But it was a difficult neighborhood to exist in, in many ways. I think that gave me a lot of survival skills, which allow me to roll with the punches in crisis modes. It also gave me a different type of appreciation for free time.

When I have free time, I usually entertain myself with some form of athletic or outdoor activity. Growing up, that's what I had. We didn't have a lot of money or things to do. One of the things that I now do in my free time is fishing. I share a boat with a friend so we go fishing. Whether I catch anything or not is irrelevant. I just like getting out on the water, enjoying the fresh air, and enjoying the camaraderie of such an activity.

I've played softball all my life and I occasionally golf. But almost any outdoor activity is one that I enjoy. I particularly enjoy ones that tend to take me away from lots of people.

In my job, I interact with people regularly, from the time I walk in until I leave my office. So when I get home, I tend to avoid highly interactive situations. I have a son, daughter and wife who I enjoy interacting with, but I'm not the type that goes home and says, "Well, who are we going to have over for dinner tonight?"

I think I tend to be open and honest with people; I've found that to be the best way of dealing with people. I'm the same way at work that I am at home. So I don't really see that I have to change my personality in the way I do things. Of course, I must change the way that I dress at work, but I don't dress formally around the backyard.

I like my free time. I don't like to have a programmed weekend because I'm so programmed in the work environment. I really value free time.


Likes/Dislikes About Career

I think the greatest frustration is the inability to set goals and stick to them. Right now, we're seeing that happen more and more at NASA. We're not doing what we say we're going to do. One week we'll say we're going to do Project X and start off in that direction, and the next month we've changed course or changed the ground rules. That's extremely frustrating.

We may also increase the staff because we're going to build some new equipment for Project XYZ. Suddenly, it's decided that we don't really have the money to do that so we're going to have to lay these people off. When you have to look a person in the eye and say, "I'm sorry, but we're going to have to let you go because we just don't have the funding," and put them out on the street, you're affecting that person in ways that you just can't imagine. Sometimes that is forgotten by the people in Washington, D.C., who are only dealing with this whole process remotely. We here at a field center, trying to build hardware, employ people, and channel their energies have to deal with it and it's extremely frustrating.

The lack of being able to hire people is a problem. We have lots of ideas, lots of new programs, and sometimes, even lots of money. But not being able to hire civil servants, for example, to give continuity over time, and that a contractor just doesn't provide, is very frustrating.

The ability to go out to a university community and say, "We'd really like to get the best and the brightest and here's why," and to instill in the students the kind of excitement that I had instilled in me when I first came to ARC is gone. It just doesn't exist in today's environment here at NASA. It's a sad thing to witness and very frustrating.


Preparation for Career

I think I was always inquisitive. I was the kind of kid who would get everything out of the bathroom junk drawer and mix them together to see if the mixture would kill ants. I had a microscope kit and was fascinated to look through the microscope and see what was swimming around in a drop of water.

I liked to build things, too. So I'm kind of a hybrid biologist-engineer. In managing the BION Program, I was accused by the Russians of being an engineer, before they knew me. In fact, I'm a bacteriologist by training and generally, a scientist. But they said that because of some of the ways I operated and the rapid way I approached solutions to things, I'm more like an engineer.

Typically in the Russians' views, scientists take more time to complete tasks, rarely meet deadlines, and are not as aggressive in problem solving. However, I tend to be a little impatient, and maybe that's why I chose bacteriology because it is a part of science that can give quick answers in some ways.

So I'd say that the fact I was inquisitive and had a work ethic instilled in me by my parents -- my dad was a milkman, a blue collar worker -- has helped. I've never been one to let dust collect. Even in times when one could easily get depressed with the state of the budget or the lack of direction, one can always find ways to direct their energies to turn bad situations around. Some dumb decision is being made somewhere up and down the chain everyday, and part of my job is to undo that decision before it gets us into difficulty, and try to do what's right -- right by the program, the people, the agency, and the country.


Advice

Try to volunteer or get involved with an internship program to get some experience and really see what it's like. It looks glamorous from the outside looking in, but until you actually work in a laboratory and see what goes on, and the kinds of activities you would be doing if you did become a scientist, you really can't know if this is a career you would like to choose for yourself. So I would especially encourage teachers to find ways for their students and students to ask their teachers how to get involved in laboratories.

Spend a few days or a week with some of our scientists. I think that most scientists at both the industry and university level would love to have students come in and help them, even if it's only to wash some test tubes. It gets them involved and they start sharing the excitement of the scientific activity going on in the laboratory. There are a number of paying jobs that can open up to the students. I think that's really the best way to determine whether or not science is for them, and to see if that excitement really does kindle a spark in them. It's not for everyone.


My Future Plans and Goals

I've just begun to think about retirement in the last year; up until that point, I had never even thought of retirement. In fact, as a supervisor, you are supposed to know something about the retirement system so when your employees come to talk to you about it, you can share some knowledge with them. That has probably been one of my weak points because I didn't know a lot about the system and I would send them to an expert to talk about the retirement program.

We're at a point now that what we are about to engage in is exciting, with respect to the Space Station. Yet, it's extremely frustrating to see that the Station may be going through the same growing pains that the shuttle did, and there may be a standdown or drag out of this activity.

Coming from the era of the shuttle in which we were getting, sharing, and being part of so much new knowledge, to a time in which we may standdown for a bit and slow down the whole process is making me think about what I want to do with the rest of my life. I am certainly too young to retire and go fishing. But I may want to get out of this pressure cooker environment (perhaps retire from my current position), where I'm constantly in the crisis mode instead of the science mode, don't have time to think freely, and am always reactionary, and return to the laboratory environment.

I may return to an actual hands-on laboratory, like my days in exobiology, or maybe use some of the things I've learned in how to bring people together or put things in space. I could work as a contractor for a group that prepares experiments for the shuttle or the space station. Those are options I'm certainly considering.

Alternatively, I had an opportunity to work in a biotechnology company for three months. It was part of a career development program I was selected for several years back. In three months, I could see a kind of excitement in this biotechnology program that existed in NASA in the 1960s and 1970s. They are just at the jumping point of tremendous discoveries.

When you talk about genetically engineering a mouse to produce a human antibody against a particular disease, the breakthroughs for human quality of life and control of human disease are just fantastic. I think we are going to see tremendous breakthroughs in the next 10 years -- maybe not the cure of all cancers, but certainly it's going to do phenomenal things for people with genetic diseases. For example, cures for people who are missing proteins that can't metabolize a necessary enzyme or hormone are just around the corner.


 
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