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Meet: Cassie Conley

photo of cassie conley

Planetary Protection Officer (Acting), NASA Headquarters

Who I am and what I Do
I received my Ph.D. in Plant Biology from Cornell University in 1994, and obtained a postdoctoral fellow position at The Scripps Research Institute studying proteins involved in muscle contraction. In 1999 I accepted a research scientist position with the NASA Ames Research Center, where my laboratory is now located. My current research focuses on the evolution of motility, particularly animal muscle, and the adaptation of eukaryotes to extreme environments including the Atacama Desert.

I've also been involved in several spaceflight experiments using the nematode work Caenorhabditis elegans, the first of which was flown on the last mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia. I am actively involved in planning for future spaceflight missions using C. elegans.

Recently, I have been appointed acting as Planetary Protection Officer at NASA Headquarters. I am responsible for ensuring that international guidelines and NASA policies are followed, to prevent biological contamination as we explore the solar system.

What helped me prepare for this job
In college I studied physics, chemistry and math, as well as the courses required for my double major in Life Sciences and Humanities. Space research involves interacting with a wide variety of scientists and engineers, so a good foundation allows understanding of all the different approaches taken by the various participants. My second major was in language translation, which has been extremely useful for communicating across different disciplines.

Career Path
In high school I studied both science (physics, chemistry, biology, math) and music (violin), so I had to decide which area I wanted to pursue in college. I observed that most of the professional musicians I knew seemed to have lost the joy of music, so I chose to pursue science as my career and keep music as a hobby. It pays better, too. I earned two bachelor of science degrees, one in Life Sciences with a minor in math, and the other in Humanities, language translation with a minor in music.

In 1988 I entered graduate school to study plant science, a subject I chose because I had not had much exposure to it as an undergrad at MIT. Plants are fascinating organisms, with many capabilities not found in the standard biomedical animal models. I became interested in the actin cytoskeleton, which is conserved in all eukaryotes but performs very diverse functions in the different lineages. To pursue this subject I took a postdoctoral position in a laboratory that studied animal muscle, and the role of a protein with a unique actin-binding function. Initially I intended to learn techniques to study this protein in animals and bring them to plant research, but with the expansion of the genome sequencing projects I was able to demonstrate that this protein was only present in animals.

This recognition strengthened my interest in muscle contractility and the evolution of muscle, so I applied for the position at NASA Ames to study muscle atrophy in space. With the advent of Astrobiology, I expanded my research to include muscle function in extreme environments and the origin and evolution of multicellular motility.

What I like most about my job
The most satisfying thing to me about being a scientist is that I have the chance to discover new things every day. There isn't anyone else in the world who knows more about my particular favorite protein than I do. While that may be because nobody else really cares, it's very satisfying to work hard and find out things that never were known before.

Another critical aspect of being a scientist is the ability to communicate. I may know everything in the world about my favorite subject, but if I don't make sure to document my knowledge for other people, it doesn't do any good to anyone. So while studying math and science are critical for a researcher, it's also important to write well and develop the ability to use language effectively to communicate what you want to say.

Last Updated: April 20, 2006


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