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Meet Tori Hoehler

Photos of Dr. Hoehler in his office and diving gear


"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..."

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 field—we 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 places—but it can also be pretty exhausting at times.

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, too—and 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 ideas—new ways of thinking about nature that help us to figure out how it works.

Career Journey
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.

Growing Up
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 years—I 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 way—that'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 of facts..."
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 solver—and 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 here—hiking, 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 things—my 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 life—and that there is always plenty to see and do outside of the lab and the office.

Last Updated: August 17, 2001


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