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Meet: Jon Rask

Space Biologist
Nasa Ames Research Center

Career Fact Sheet Print Version

Who I Am and What I Do
I am a Space Biologist. I am curious about what happens to life many generations after it leaves planet Earth. My job requires me to be involved in several different aspects of research. First, I help complete ground studies here on Earth. In this role, I help to manage the labs used to study specimens in both 1g (normal Earth gravity) and in the Ames centrifuge facilities (to simulate hypergravity). These studies help to generate a spectrum of knowledge that can be compared with the results from past or future spaceflight experiments. Second, I helped develop the actual spaceflight experiments themselves. In this example, we send model organisms into space, allow them to grow and develop, and then bring them back for study. We also repeat the same experiment here on the Earth. Careful analysis of both the flight experiment and ground controls are critical to understanding the biological changes that result from spaceflight.

I have supported the development of biological research hardware for the International Space Station, studied the growth of model organisms including Drosophila (fruit flies), Arabidopsis (a small plant), yeast, and C. elegans (a worm), and completed numerous tissue culture studies using rodent muscle cells. In addition, I attend team meetings, order supplies, maintain inventories, and manage safety issues for the lab.

Another very important role I have is educating the public. I have developed an educator guide that provides teachers with information they can use to teach their students the concepts of radiation biology, which is the interdisciplinary science that examines the biological effects of radiation on living systems. I also do extensive amounts of public outreach, covering topics of space life sciences and astrobiology. I have helped train teachers for the education office at Ames, and also volunteer for the Mars Society and JPL’s Solar System Ambassador Program.

Areas of expertise
• Project management
• Biocompatibility testing of space mission hardware
• Space Biology experiment development
• Astrobiology education
• Ground studies and hypergravity research
• Radiation biology education

How I first became interested in this profession
I’ve wanted to work for NASA since my childhood.

What helped prepare me for this job
Persistence, consistency, patience, and enthusiasm! Lab skills (molecular and non-molecular), communication and listening skills, knowledge of biology, microscopy, chemistry, mathematics, physics, and most importantly, a desire to learn about our place in the cosmos.

Role Models
My mother and father, former students, astronauts, pictures from Voyager 1 & 2, Mars scientists, special relativity, winters in North Dakota, pioneers, and the haunting tranquility of prairie wilderness.

My education and training

• B.S., Education, North Dakota State University
• M.S., Space Studies, University of North Dakota

My career path
My love for space science started when I was farming and ranching in North Dakota. It was a great experience because I was in a place where evening light pollution did not exist, and this enabled some amazing star-gazing. I was curious about the potential for life to exist elsewhere in the Universe, and I loved to talk about it. So I became a science teacher in Bismarck, ND, and incorporated the themes of space science my high school Biology, Physics, Applied Biology Chemistry, Physical Science, and Geoscience classes. Teaching these courses allowed me to see the interdisciplinary nature of the study of life in the Universe. It inspired me to return to graduate school at the University of North Dakota, where I earned an MS in Space Studies.

I then got a job at NASA Ames Research Center, where I have worked on multiple projects including the Space Station Biological Research Project, Space Shuttle life science payloads FIT, MICROBE, and SPEGIS, and numerous hypergravity ground studies. I’ve also authored the NASA Ames radiation biology educator guide.

What I like about my job
It is thrilling to know that I am participating in the scientific exploration of the space frontier. It is a privilege to make contributions toward improving our understanding of life in the Universe. I also greatly appreciate being able to work with and learn from world-class researchers, and I enjoy the flexibility of my schedule. Sharing my experiences with friends, family, and the general public is very rewarding.

Another really fun aspect of my job is that I am also a subject in human centrifugation studies. I actually ride in large centrifuges here at Ames, and experience acceleration forces similar to what astronauts feel during launch and re-entry. It really opens your eyes to human physiology! Being a human subject motivates me to stay physically fit and lead a healthy lifestyle.

What I don't like about my job
Writing many documents for several projects in parallel on a short schedule is extremely challenging. The process requires me to gather a lot of feedback, which can sometimes become quite complicated and time consuming. Although juggling multiple tasks can be difficult, it has helped me to develop efficient project management skills. Lab work often requires very intensive, long days of repetitive work, even on weekends. If we have organisms growing and experiments running, they need to be tended to all the time. If I am consistent and persistent with these parts of my job, the team I work with is successful–which makes it all worthwhile.

Another thing that makes my job less enjoyable and quite stressful is when priorities within the agency change. If NASA policy changes, it may mean that ongoing programs are no longer needed or desired–and that program could be yours. It can mean that your experiment, project, or flight gets canceled, and you or your colleagues could end up losing their job, even after many years of hard work.

My advice to anyone interested in this occupation
Be proactive, learn as much as you can, and have fun! Be flexible and make certain you follow through on everything you say you will do.

Last updated: September 2006


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