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Who I am and what I Do
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 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
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.
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