Who I Am and What I Do
Hi there! I am a research scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain
View, California (that's in the San Francisco Bay area, right in the heart
of "Silicon Valley"). I work in the Astrobiology Program, which
is the part of NASA that's interested in looking for life on other worlds.
That means I don't have very much to do with the manned space flight programs
(like the shuttle or the international space station), but instead, am
more interested in what remote probes, (like the ones that have been sent
to Mars or Jupiter), and telescopes, can tell us about worlds that are
too far away to send people to (at least for right now).
The work I do is mostly microbiology, because we think that
if we are able to find life on other worlds, it is most likely to be
something like the bacteria we have here on Earth. I try to figure out
how the microbes that live here on Earth change their environment in
ways that might be detected from far away in space. That kind of information
will eventually help us to collect data from other worlds and use it
to say whether or not there is life on those worlds.
A lot of the work I do is out in the fieldwe go to a variety
of locations outside the lab in order to study microorganisms in the
natural environment. Right now, I do most of my fieldwork in Baja California
(Mexico), and Yellowstone National Park (in Wyoming and Montana). That's
one of the best things about my job. It's a lot of fun, and lets
me go to some cool placesbut it can also be pretty exhausting
The other really neat part of my job is making new discoveries.
Mostly these are little things (not the kind of stuff you would read
about in the newspaper), but sometimes they can be pretty important.
Either way, it's a really neat feeling, because you figured out how
something works, and you're the only person in the world who knows about
it! Of course, in between field work and making new discoveries, there
can be long periods when I'm just working in the lab or sitting in front
of my computer. That can be boring sometimes, but it's important, tooand
the good stuff makes my job really worthwhile overall. Probably the
best thing is that my job lets me be really creative. Some people
create art, music, or literature. My job is to create ideasnew
ways of thinking about nature that help us to figure out how it works.
How did I get to NASA? In college, I got my bachelor's degree in Chemistry
and my Ph.D. in Oceanography, both at the University of North Carolina
(Go Heels!). When I was a freshman, I started working in a lab that
studied how bacteria affect the chemistry of the ocean. I really liked
what I was doing there, and the people I was working with, so I stayed
with it all the way through college and graduate school. Near the end
of that time, I realized that the kinds of things I was studying there
would be important for the Astrobiology program, which was just being
created at the time. So I came here to NASA right after finishing my
Ph.D., about three years ago.
I grew up here, there, and everywhere...
I was born in the Bahamas and lived there until I was six. I think I
got my love of the ocean from that time. My dad tells me that I could
swim long before I could walk, and that he used to take me out snorkeling
on the reefs starting when I was four years old.
After that, my family moved to Winter Springs, Florida for about seven
yearsI was there for just about all of elementary and middle school.
I spent the next four years in Germany (Hanau and Frankfurt), where
my step-dad was stationed. I went to an American high school; still,
I did all I could to experience the local language and culture. I think,
having the chance to live in a different country, at a fairly young
age, contributed a lot to who I am now.
When I graduated from high school, I went to work on a cruise ship
for a year before going to college. My family was worried that I would
like it too much and forget all about college. It was definitely a lot
of fun, but it also didn't take me long to realize that I would really
miss learning if I just gave up on school like that. But the experience
was really valuable and remains a part of me. I think it's important
for everyone to see, do, and experience as much as they can along the
waythat's what life is all about.
I got interested in space when I was pretty young. Right about the
time I was in fifth grade, Voyager 2 was passing Jupiter, and sending
back all kinds of great pictures. I thought it was just the coolest
thing. But the funny thing is, I didn't ever set out to become a NASA
scientist. I just "followed my nose" into doing and learning
whatever interested me, and took opportunities as they came up. And
now here I am.
"science is a way of studying the world around us, not a set
If you are planning to pursue a career in science, my advice is: First,
to always work on things that are interesting and exciting to you. Pick
a field because you think it's cool, not because someone else tells
you it's important. It is especially rewarding to learn new things and
make discoveries in an area that has always fascinated you. Second,
remember that science is a way of studying the world around us, not
a set of facts. Books are full of facts, but they are not intelligent
or creative. It is the particular methods with which scientists study
things that has let them fill those books up. Albert Einstein once said,
"imagination is more important than knowledge"it was one of many
things he was right about. The most important advances in science have
always been made by people who had new and creative ways of thinking
about things. So instead of just memorizing facts, learn to be a good
problem solverand don't be afraid to apply your creativity. Last,
try to find people around you who share your enthusiasm for particular
subjects, and who may have some wisdom to impart. Like a mentor, you
could say, but I don't want it to sound that formal. It could be anyone.
Probably the two biggest influences on my becoming a scientist were
my grandfather and my high school chemistry teacher.
I live with my wife, I-Zu, in Sunnyvale, California. We don't have any
kids yet (we've both only been out of school for a few years), but will
some day. We really like living in the San Francisco Bay area because
of all the great things to do here. I enjoy any activity or sport that
gets me out into nature, and there's plenty of stuff like that herehiking,
skiing, scuba diving, etc. California is a beautiful place, and I try
to take advantage of all it has to offer by getting out and seeing a
lot of the countryside. We're only about an hour from the ocean and
a few hours from the mountains.
I like to cook a lot, mostly because I get to eat it afterwards. I
like pretty much all kinds of food, but especially very hot and spicy
stuff. I travel as much as I can, and really enjoy that, too. I think
it gives you a great perspective on things. My most recent trip was
to Southeast Asia (Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia) with my wife.
I also play several sports. Swimming is definitely my best, but I think
basketball is my favorite. All of these thingsmy family, my hobbies,
traveling, etc.are very important parts of my life. I like my
job a lot, but I always try to remember (and would encourage others
to, as well) that it is only a small part of lifeand that there
is always plenty to see and do outside of the lab and the office.
Last Updated: August 17, 2001