Meet: Kenneth A. Souza
Associate Director of Life Sciences
NASA Ames Research Center
Who am I?
I'm the associate director of life sciences, in the space directorate
at NASA-Ames Research Center. I have been here for 30 years. I was trained
as a microbiologist/bacteriologist at U.C. Berkeley. After coming to NASA-Ames
in the mid-1960s, I received a Master's degree at San Jose State University.
We have a lot of specialized equipment here on the ground, like centrifuges,
as well as unique equipment to use in space, in support of the life scientists
at Ames and in the university community. We are facilitators as well as
independent researchers at Ames. We do our own in-house research, but
we engage the much larger community outside of NASA in order to involve
them in addressing the unique use of space for advancing our knowledge
of biomedical problems and basic biology.
We study the effects of gravity, and the lack thereof, on living systems,
from the astronauts to the simplest single celled organisms. Gravity has
been with us since the creation of life and all living systems have found
ways to sense and adapt to gravity. When we go into space, we have a much
different level of gravity to deal with, e.g. only 1/6 Earth's gravity
on the moon, 3/8 Earth's gravity on Mars, and about 1/1000 Earth's gravity
aboard an orbiting space station. Only when we gained access to space
could we really study how life adapts to gravity and the role gravity
plays in the way living systems functions, humans, animals, plants and
My Career Journey
I decided to major in bacteriology, and molecular biology was very much
of interest to me. By the time I reached graduation, I thought I would
probably go on to graduate school. However, at that time, the Vietnam
War was at its peak and graduate school was not an option.
It turned out that when I applied for jobs to see what was out there,
NASA offered me a position. It sounded very exciting -- working with extreme
environments in exobiology. They also offered a deferment and an opportunity
to continue my education, so that became the job that I pursued. There
were a few other offers that I had that just were not as attractive --
the National Institutes of Health, and the Central Intelligence Agency,
of all things! When comparing exobiology, studies of human disease, or
germ warfare, exobiology won out.
I began my career in the laboratory as a technician working in the exobiology
area. Exobiologists at the time were interested in organisms living in
extreme environments, particularly as those organisms pertain to possible
survival and growth on other planets. For example, at one time we thought
that Venus was not as hot as we now know it. We thought that organisms
that lived in hot environments on Earth might tell us something about
the kind of organisms to look for on Venus. We also looked at organisms
that might survive in the Jovian atmosphere (on Jupiter). Such organisms
would have to live their whole life cycle in water droplets (an aerosol)
and be able to tolerate highly alkaline environments, a lack of oxygen,
and high concentrations of ammonia. While we could find organisms that
could thrive in highly alkaline conditions, we were unable to prove that
multiple generations of organisms were possible in an aerosol, especially
in the presence of large amounts of ammonia.
Life in extreme environments was the order of the day. I was somewhat
involved with the Viking Project, which were the probes we sent to Mars
to search for life. In the mid-1970s I went to NASA Headquarters for a
year as a career development participant and served as the technical assistant
to the chief of the planetary biology program. When I came back to Ames
I moved from the laboratory environment into management, managing a joint
U.S./U.S.S.R. biosatellite program. This was a program in which we flew
U.S. life science experiments, mainly those experiments that used animals,
plants, cells, and tissues on the Russian biosatellites. We began doing
that approximately every two years at the invitation of the Russians.
My job was to coordinate the U.S. package of experiments and to integrate
them with the Russian scientists that were participating on the same mission.
During the 1970s, we didn't have a lot of opportunities to fly life science
experiments. Therefore, the program with the Russians was a very good
program for the U.S. science community because it gave us access to space
and the Russians weren't charging anything to use their equipment. All
we had to do was provide funding to the U.S. principal investigators,
develop their experiments, and take advantage of the opportunity to fly
on the Russian biosatellites; the satellites flew every two years and
orbitted for a duration of about three weeks.
The biosatellite program was a collaborative effort in which the Russians
felt their program was benefiting from the involvement of the U.S. scientists.
Their scientists did not have a lot of access to Western technology and
ideas. Therefore, this joint program was a way of infusing the latest
science advancements, ideas and technologies into their institutes.
It was a program that involved a number of other countries, as well.
So it truly became an international gathering of the "best and the brightest"
in the space biology and medical community. To this day, we are still
flying biosatellite missions with the next one to be launched in October
After I managed the US/Russian biosatellite program for about five years,
I was selected for another administrative job in the life sciences research
program conducted at NASA-Ames, which was primarily ground-based research.
I was selected as the deputy division chief for biomedical research. The
division included a group of about 45 life scientists engaged in a broad
spectrum of research involving the role and influence of gravity on living
systems, with a special focus on the biomedical problems affecting human
space flight. We studied a variety of them, from cardiovascular deconditioning
to the weakening of the bones and muscles that occur when humans go into
space and no longer have Earth's gravity pulling on their bodies.
About 1986 I moved again, from the ground-based research program back
into the flight program and was given the job of managing the Space Life
Sciences Projects Office. The office was responsible for managing the
development and flight of all U.S. life sciences experiments that were
going to be flown in space.
I held that position for about eight years, during which time we flew
well over 150 experiments onboard the space shuttle including the major
Spacelab missions, such as SLS I and II and the international microgravity
missions. It was an exciting time and a lot of new science data were acquired.
In 1993 Ames Research Center (ARC) reorganized and I was given the job
of associate director for life sciences, which is the job I currently
hold. I'm responsible for all of the life sciences work going on at ARC,
both flight and ground. The annual budget is about $60 million and we
have between 60 and 70 civil servants and more than 200 contractors working
on site supporting our overall effort.
So that's my career to date in NASA. I didn't come to NASA as a space
fanatic but got the bug quite early and have been hooked ever since.
That brings my career history up to date. I've spent 30 years in this
field, and I'll probably spend a few more, but I'm not quite sure what
the future holds. "Proceed as the way opens," my mother-in-law used to
Exobiology and space and gravitational biology have been extremely exciting
and fascinating fields to be in because of the diversity of activities
that are going on, the number of fascinating people that I get to meet
and interact with, and the constant influx of new knowledge.
You don't have to be an expert in different fields to understand them.
Part of the job that I have is to take what is found on a technical level
and translate it so that the public, the Congress, and the people who
control the budget can understand the significance of what we're doing
and why we're doing it. Additionally, I make sure that the information
coming from the scientists gets translated in a way that young students
can appreciate. We're trying to instill the excitement of science at the
lowest levels possible.
We believe that if we don't get the students in the elementary grades
interested in science we've lost them, that is, by the time they've reached
high school it's pretty hard to redirect them back into science.
NASA has been a great place to work until very recently. Like many government
agencies we've become wrapped up with downsizing and restructuring, which
are not fun things to go through. But it has been a very stimulating place
to work, with a lot of freedom to explore ideas and concepts.
My career kind of fell into place. I started out as a math major at U.C.
Berkeley and then became excited by a very stimulating professor I had
in biology, and then became more interested in the biological sciences.
I think I started asking questions about a career in math the same way
I was asking questions about a career in biology thinking, "What would
I actually do with a career in math?" At that time in the early 1960s,
computers were just beginning to come out and there wasn't a computer
science field to go into. So the opportunities in math, as explained to
me by my advisor, seemed pretty dry for me. Theoretical math, blackboard
calculations and teaching really didn't excite me that much.
On the other hand, looking through a microscope at life that I didn't
even know existed in a drop of water, the various forms and shapes, the
things one does in a laboratory to investigate that, and generating new
information was very exciting to me. Everyday was something different
in the laboratory. The techniques we used were fascinating and results
were sometimes instantaneious. Things could be grown, and in the case
of bacteriology, an experiment could be done in a day or two. We didn't
have to wait the lifetime of an elephant if we were studying lifespan.
My first biology professor at Cal was an Australian, so I may have been
captivated a bit by his accent because that always attracts me. But his
own enthusiasm for the field was just as contagious and he was one of
the few professors I ever had that could exude such enthusiasm. He was
excited about the world we lived in and the way that we've evolved, the
new frontiers, and the new things that science was opening, especially
in biology. We were understanding how the genetic system worked, how cells
divided and regulated themselves, and how the whole machinery of the cell
was put together. It was really a fascinating time to be involved with
the biological sciences.
I don't think I really put on a facade when I come to work. Certainly,
I have to change the way I operate. I grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood
in East Oakland. It wasn't like East Oakland today, which is a lot rougher.
But it was a difficult neighborhood to exist in, in many ways. I think
that gave me a lot of survival skills, which allow me to roll with the
punches in crisis modes. It also gave me a different type of appreciation
for free time.
When I have free time, I usually entertain myself with some form of athletic
or outdoor activity. Growing up, that's what I had. We didn't have a lot
of money or things to do. One of the things that I now do in my free time
is fishing. I share a boat with a friend so we go fishing. Whether I catch
anything or not is irrelevant. I just like getting out on the water, enjoying
the fresh air, and enjoying the camaraderie of such an activity.
I've played softball all my life and I occasionally golf. But almost
any outdoor activity is one that I enjoy. I particularly enjoy ones that
tend to take me away from lots of people.
In my job, I interact with people regularly, from the time I walk in
until I leave my office. So when I get home, I tend to avoid highly interactive
situations. I have a son, daughter and wife who I enjoy interacting with,
but I'm not the type that goes home and says, "Well, who are we going
to have over for dinner tonight?"
I think I tend to be open and honest with people; I've found that to
be the best way of dealing with people. I'm the same way at work that
I am at home. So I don't really see that I have to change my personality
in the way I do things. Of course, I must change the way that I dress
at work, but I don't dress formally around the backyard.
I like my free time. I don't like to have a programmed weekend because
I'm so programmed in the work environment. I really value free time.
Likes/Dislikes About Career
I think the greatest frustration is the inability to set goals and stick
to them. Right now, we're seeing that happen more and more at NASA. We're
not doing what we say we're going to do. One week we'll say we're going
to do Project X and start off in that direction, and the next month we've
changed course or changed the ground rules. That's extremely frustrating.
We may also increase the staff because we're going to build some new
equipment for Project XYZ. Suddenly, it's decided that we don't really
have the money to do that so we're going to have to lay these people off.
When you have to look a person in the eye and say, "I'm sorry, but we're
going to have to let you go because we just don't have the funding," and
put them out on the street, you're affecting that person in ways that
you just can't imagine. Sometimes that is forgotten by the people in Washington,
D.C. who are only dealing with this whole process remotely. We here at
a field center, trying to build hardware, employ people, and channel their
energies have to deal with it and it's extremely frustrating.
The lack of being able to hire people is a problem. We have lots of ideas,
lots of new programs, and sometimes, even lots of money. But not being
able to hire civil servants, for example, to give continuity over time,
and that a contractor just doesn't provide, is very frustrating.
The ability to go out to a university community and say, "We'd really
like to get the best and the brightest and here's why," and to instill
in the students the kind of excitement that I had instilled in me when
I first came to ARC is gone. It just doesn't exist in today's environment
here at NASA. Its a sad thing to witness and very frustrating.
Preparation for Career
I think I was always inquisitive. I was the kind of kid that would get
everything out of the bathroom junk drawer and mix them together to see
if the mixture would kill ants. I had a microscope kit and was fascinated
to look through the microscope and see what was swimming around in a drop
I liked to build things, too. So I'm kind of a hybrid biologist-engineer.
In managing the BION Program, I was accused by the Russians of being an
engineer, before they knew me. In fact, I'm a bacteriologist by training
and generally, a scientist. But they said that because of some of the
ways I operated and the rapid way I approached solutions to things, I'm
more like an engineer.
Typically in the Russians' views, scientists take more time to complete
tasks, rarely meet deadlines, and are not as aggressive in problem solving.
However, I tend to be a little impatient, and maybe that's why I chose
bacteriology because it is a part of science that can give quick answers
in some ways.
So I'd say that the fact I was inquisitive and had a work ethic instilled
in me by my parents -- my dad was a milkman, a blue collar worker -- has
helped. I've never been one to let dust collect. Even in times when one
could easily get depressed with the state of the budget or the lack of
direction, one can always find ways to direct their energies to turn bad
situations around. Some dumb decision is being made somewhere up and down
the chain everyday, and part of my job is to undo that decision before
it gets us into difficulty, and try to do what's right -- right by the
program, the people, the agency, and the country.
Try to volunteer or get involved with an internship program to get some
experience and really see what its like. It looks glamorous from the outside
looking in, but until you actually work in a laboratory and see what goes
on, and the kinds of activities you would be doing if you did become a
scientist, you really can't know if this is a career you would like to
choose for yourself. So I would especially encourage teachers to find
ways for their students and students to ask their teachers how to get
involved in laboratories.
Spend a few days or a week with some of our scientists. I think that
most scientists at both the industry and university level would love to
have students come in and help them, even if its only to wash some test
tubes. It gets them involved and they start sharing the excitement of
the scientific activity going on in the laboratory. There are a number
of paying jobs that can open up to the students. I think that's really
the best way to determine whether or not science is for them, and to see
if that excitement really does kindle a spark in them. It's not for everyone.
My Future Plans and Goals
I've just begun to think about retirement in the last year; up until
that point, I had never even thought of retirement. In fact, as a supervisor,
you are supposed to know something about the retirement system so when
your employees come to talk to you about it, you can share some knowledge
with them. That has probably been one of my weak points because I didn't
know a lot about the system and I would send them to an expert to talk
about the retirement program.
We're at a point now that what we are about to engage in is exciting,
with respect to the Space Station. Yet, it's extremely frustrating to
see that the Station may be going through the same growing pains that
the shuttle did, and there may be a standdown or drag out of this activity.
Coming from the era of the shuttle in which we were getting, sharing,
and being part of so much new knowledge, to a time in which we may standdown
for a bit and slow down the whole process is making me think about what
I want to do with the rest of my life. I am certainly too young to retire
and go fishing. But I may want to get out of this pressure cooker environment
(perhaps retire from my current position), where I'm constantly in the
crisis mode instead of the science mode, don't have time to think freely,
and am always reactionary, and return to the laboratory environment.
I may return to an actual hands-on laboratory, like my days in exobiology,
or maybe use some of the things I've learned in how to bring people together
or put things in space. I could work as a contractor for a group that
prepares experiments for the shuttle or the space station. Those are options
I'm certainly considering.
Alternatively, I had an opportunity to work in a biotechnology company
for three months. It was part of a career development program I was selected
for several years back. In three months, I could see a kind of excitement
in this biotechnology program that existed in NASA in the 1960s and 1970s.
They are just at the jumping point of tremendous discoveries.
When you talk about genetically engineering a mouse to produce a human
antibody against a particular disease, the breakthroughs for human quality
of life and control of human disease are just fantastic. I think we are
going to see tremendous breakthroughs in the next 10 years -- maybe not
the cure of all cancers, but certainly it's going to do phenomenal things
for people with genetic diseases. For example, cures for people who are
missing proteins that can't metabolize a necessary enzyme or hormone are
just around the corner.