Meet: Heather Smith
Ecology of Lunar and Martian
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.
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
My education and training
My education gave me the knowledge and ability to complete research tasks.
- M. Sc, Space Studies, International Space University, Strasbourg,
- B.A. Physics, The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington
- B.A. Psychology, Physics Minor, University of North 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.