Meet Brad Bebout
"Did you ever wonder about how the plants in the sea get their nitrogen?... many of the microbial mats that we study literally take their nitrogen out of the air..."
Who I am and What I Do
I am a research scientist at NASA Ames Research Center. My field of expertise is Microbial Ecology, and I am interested in all aspects of the ecology of microorganisms, how they survive in the sometimes harsh environments where they live, as well as how they affect our environment on Earth (and they do have a big effect). I maintain a research laboratory, and do research both in the lab, and on the field. One of the favorite parts of my work involves creating newer and better "gizmos" to measure biological and chemical processes in microbial communities. That means that I spend a fair amount of my time trying to make the gizmos work for our applications. I work in the Exobiology Branch at Ames Research Center. Scientists in the Exobiology Branch are interested in all sorts of questions about the origin and evolution of life on Earth, and possibly on other planets. My particular area of research is in "microbial mats." These are well developed communities of microorganisms that grow at various locations on Earth. Although they are not so common today, they are the oldest forms of life on Earth. The reason why we are interested in learning as much as we can about them, is that they teach us about early life on Earth. Since they have been alive on Earth longer than anything else, they may also have a lot to teach us about what to look for on other planets.
How did I end up as a NASA scientist? Sometimes, I am not even sure myself. My training is in the field of Marine Sciences, and I came to work at NASA because many of the areas I had been studying were of great interest to NASA in its efforts to understand the evolution of life on Earth. I originally got interested in Marine Sciences as a direct result of SCUBA diving. I started undergraduate school at the University of Nevada, Reno, but I got so involved with SCUBA diving in the Monterey Bay that I transferred to the University of California at Santa Cruz, so I could go diving more often. I took a lot of classes in marine biology, did a senior project in marine biology, and ended up going to graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which has a program in Marine Sciences. My Masters thesis work was about the role of marine fungi in feeding salt marsh snails. My Ph.D. work was on microbial mats, specifically how these mats get the nitrogen that they need for growth. We put fertilizer on plants to give them the nitrogen that they need to grow, but did you ever wonder about how the plants in the sea get their nitrogen? It turns out that many of the microbial mats that we study are able to literally take their nitrogen out of the air, using a process called nitrogen fixation. After finishing up my Ph.D. work, I spent two years in Germany at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, and two years at the University of Maryland's Horn Point Lab, on the Chesapeake Bay's Eastern Shore.
I began life as a Californian, I was born in Berkeley when my dad was in school at the University of California, Berkeley. After he graduated, we lived in various places in California. When I was eight years old, my dad joined the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and we traveled and lived all over the world. The time abroad was very important in shaping the way I think about almost everything, and I really appreciate having had the opportunity to see so many things. When it was time for me to go to high school, my family moved back to the United States, and I entered Carson High School, in Carson City, Nevada. I was interested in becoming a veterinarian, and so, after high school graduation, I entered the pre-vet program at the University of Nevada, Reno. After taking up SCUBA diving as a hobby, however, I decided that what I really wanted to study were the critters that lived underwater.
My wife, Lee Prufert-Bebout, and I both work as research scientists at NASA Ames, and our 4 year old daughter goes to day care "on campus" (NASA Ames is located at the location of the Moffett Naval Air Field), too. Every day the three of us car pool about an hour from the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains to Silicon Valley. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if our daughter grows up to be a scientist, too, as that hour is usually completely filled with her questions to us about just about anything that you can imagine. On weekends, we go over the "hill" the other way, to Santa Cruz, on the coast to go hiking, or to just hang out. My favorite thing in the world to do is to race sailboats, and although I am not getting to do that as often as I would like lately, I have raced on all kinds of boats, from dinghies to Chesapeake Bay log canoes.
My advice to anyone interested in pursuing a career in science (or in anything else as far as I can tell) is the same advice that my parents gave me: "Do what you love, and everything will work out for the best." You know what, they were right! I am extremely fortunate to have a job doing what I love to do: finding out things that no one has ever found out before. If I can do it, I think that anyone can.
Last Updated: August 28, 2001