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Meet: Brian Duval

photo of Brian Duval collecting
Research Associate
NASA Ames Research Center

Career Fact Sheet Print Version Coming Soon

Who I am and what I do
Since 1991, I have been a Research Associate at NASA Ames. I began this work as a graduate student and continue it today as a hobby. I am not a regular employee at NASA, rather, I work as a scientist for NASA when they are working on microbes (algae) that live in ice and snow. Back home in Massachusetts, I work for the Department of Environmental Protection. My specialty is aquatic microbiology.

Areas of expertise
I enjoy collecting and describing “snow algae” -- single-celled microalgae that live in snow. To view snow algae it is helpful to have a microscope with at least a 200-power lens. My training (Master of Science from U-Massachusetts) as a microbiologist provided the skills needed to observe, photograph, and characterize tiny snow algae that measure only 15-30 microns in diameter, that’s 0.0012 inches max!

Since collecting snow microbes is usually accomplished in high mountains or in polar snow one needs to be well prepared for hiking in cold weather. Thus good outdoor skills, mountaineering, orienteering/global positioning, navigation, and survival skills are needed for comfort and safety.

How I first became interested in this profession
I was first introduced to planetary science and astrobiology as a graduate student (1991-93) working for Chris McKay at NASA Ames, through the NASA Planetary Biology Internship Program. As a kid I was always interested in exploring the natural world, especially aquatic systems… either fishing, collecting frogs, crayfish, turtles, salamanders, anything with a slippery skin.

What helped prepare me for this job
An interest and broad education in the natural sciences prepared me. As a snow microbiologist in the field I measure physical parameters such as pH, temperature, snowmelt processes, and solar radiation quality and quantity since these are factors that affect algal growth. I am also interested in how algae may be affecting their local snow-pack environment, always keeping the conditions on Mars and the possibility of life there in the back of my mind.

My role models
Explorers like Norman Vaughn are my role models. During one of the early Antarctic expeditions, around 1928, Admiral Byrd named a mountain after him but it wasn’t until 1994, just days before his 89th birthday that Norman climbed Mount Vaughan -- a 10,302' Antarctic peak. Thus he never gave up. Now he plans to go back for his 100th birthday! Someday, I’d like to be as young as he.

My education and training
I have a bachelors’ degree (BS) in Environmental Studies and an MS in Microbiology, both from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

What I like best about my job
I like to travel and explore remote regions on Earth. The weirder the better! Those that are Mars-like and unearthly are of particular interest. In all these systems, somewhere, somehow, you find life. I try to imagine how creatures/microbes live in such extreme conditions. Since my association with NASA, I've worked in Antarctica, Alaska, Rio Tinto-Spain, South America, Pico de Orizaba-Mexico, the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco, and now Lassen Vocanic National Park.


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