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Meet: Heather Smith
photo of Heather in MDRS garb

Research Associate
Ecology of Lunar and Martian Analogs
NASA Ames Research Center

Who I am and what I do
I’m a research associate studying the microbial ecology of lunar and martian analogs, and a graduate student in biological engineering. As a research associate I'm involved with several projects studying the microbial population and habitat of martian analogs.

Areas of expertise

  • History of human space flight and exploration
  • Soil analysis and microbiology
  • Computer programming
  • Life detection instrumentation

I was trained as a scientist and am learning to become an engineer. The capability to think like an engineer with the curiosity of a scientist is helpful when organizing a research plan. Most of the projects are studied by an international team of scientists from a variety of disciplines. An essential skill is the ability to listen and communicate with scientists from several different disciplines. It is good to have the intuition to design an experiment well and decipher the meaning of the results. It is necessary to have a basic knowledge of the sciences, math, and data analysis tools such as graphing software. Most importantly you must be flexible and able to work in a team.

How I first became interested in this profession
I’ve wanted to be an astronaut and interested in space since birth (or at least as long as I can remember). In college I became interested in astobiology. In 1999 during my senior year my astronomy professor gave me a project to create an undergraduate astrobiology curriculum and define astrobiology. I was having a hard time finding a definition of astrobiology everyone agreed on. I came upon an announcement for the 1st astrobiology conference at Ames Research Center when browsing the web. I called to register for the conference and hopped on a plane to Mountain View, California the next day. While attending the conference I was offered a job at Space Camp California and a volunteer internship with an Astrobiologist for the upcoming summer.

After that summer, I was fascinated with the flourishing hidden desert life and mystified by Mars; I knew I wanted to be an astrobiologist. I volunteered the following summer and became a research associate for the SETI Institute at NASA Ames in the fall of 2001. Since then my job has allowed me to see amazing places and learn about phenomenal organisms.

What helped prepare me for this job
A strong interest in space, the determination to persue my goals, the willingness to speak with researchers about getting involved, and the fortunate chance of landing an internship in astrobiology.

Role Models
My parents have always encouraged me to get involved in everything possible. Girl Scouts gave me the condifence and support to succeed when I was younger and in high school. College mentors and professors, my friends, and collegues have provided guidance and encouragement to pursue my goals.

My education and training
My education gave me the knowledge and ability to complete research tasks.

  • M. Sc, Space Studies, International Space University, Strasbourg, France
  • B.A. Physics, The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington
  • B.A. Psychology, Physics Minor, University of North Texas Denton, Texas

What I like about my job
The favorite parts of my job are traveling to unique places, meeting new scientists, experiencing the enthusiasm in a child's excitiment about space, and learning about all the challenges microbial life overcomes to survive in these extreme places.

What I don't like about my job
My least favorite part is the administrative tasks, but they are necessary to understand the data and obtain funding for further research.

My advice to anyone interested in this occupation
If you are interested in space look for opportunities in your local area. If you're fortunate to live close to a NASA center volunteer for the summer. Participate in NASA educational programs as early as possible. You could volunteer in high school or participate in a NASA Academy as an undergraduate. Join a space society such as the Mars Society and Planetary Society to get involved and find out about opportunities and events. Most importantly do the best with what you are given and take your education seriously.


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