Meet: A. Gerard Heyenga, Ph.D.
Senior Research Associate
NASA Ames Research Center
Who am I?
I am a senior research associate on a fellowship from the National Research
Council (NRC), which is an umbrella organization for the National Academies
of Science and Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. So more specifically,
I am assigned to the National Academy of Science and based at NASA Ames
Research Center in Mountain View, California, working on the use of plants
in a space flight environment.
The NRC provides an opportunity to bring scientists (from all over the
world) considered experts in specific fields of study to American agencies
such as NASA to conduct research. This not only serves to benefit both
parties but is also a very unique opportunity and a great honor.
My research background is primarily in phytochemistry, which concerns
the biochemistry of plants and the metabolic formation of natural products.
This work has been largely associated with the production of medicines
such as anti-cancer drugs.
However, in this day and age, it is necessary to wear many hats. For
example, the plants that were of interest were unfortunately difficult
to cultivate, so it was necessary to learn and apply 'plant tissue culture'
techniques to secure sufficient plant material for research.
Plant tissue culture is based on the ability to take a single cell from
nearly any part of a plant and, under artificial culture conditions, get
it to divide at a highly accelerated rate. The resulting 'dedifferentiated'
tissue may be used directly or regenerated back into a 'differentiated'
whole plant again.
My work on dedifferentiated cell culture in controlled vessels or reactors
required, in turn, an additional understanding of material science and
mechanics. As it turned out, the combination of this experience is highly
relevant to the cultivation of plants in a controlled space flight environment
and NASA's interest in plant food production and basic plant research.
So with a fellowship in hand, here I stand, and occasionally I can look
up at the night sky and see one of my plant growth experiments pass by.
One initially submits a research proposal, and if the proposal is accepted
and awarded a fellowship, it is expected that the essence of the proposal
is followed. However, there is ample opportunity to address areas of interest
which may evolve from the core research. This makes the fellowship program
particularly productive in advancing new ideas and technologies. It has
been a highly successful and progressive approach.
My Career Journey
As many students may find, the more obvious areas of photosynthesis and
respiration are generally taught. However, there are entire areas of fascinating
metabolic activities which are rarely viewed, and so I feel very lucky
to have had the opportunity to study in that direction.
When I finished college, my career options first led me towards a general
practice of biochemistry in hospital laboratories. I then got an opportunity
to work for the first time in a plant-tissue culture laboratory. This
also allowed me to save money towards studying for a higher degree, since
grants or loans were almost non-existent at that time. For me, the entire
realm of tissue culture dazzled me with wonderful possibilities, particularly
in the area of metabolism and product formation. The idea that you could
have some useful compound or drug in your hand at the end of the day felt
As in life, however, it was not until I went back and completed my master's
degree in mammalian biochemistry that I realized how much I liked my plant
research. So when I finished my master's degree, I actively went out to
do a Ph.D. in an area that would allow me to combine my understanding
of biochemistry and tissue culture.
I don't believe I was inspired by any particular person but more by the
concept of doing something new and exciting. My parents had a profound
influence on my education and interest in science. They had a market gardening
business so I was exposed to plants and the wonders of nature at an early
age. My father had a very broad interest in science and an inventive mind.
My parents instilled a deep sense of wonder and so they have been very
supportive in my work and, thus, for me, a cornerstone. However, we lived
in a somewhat isolated part of Ireland near a small village, and certainly
at the time, I felt the need to go out and see the world. Therefore, I
did not want to proceed in the precise career direction of my parents.
However, when I went to college, it seemed only natural to take biology
as my major subject. As I progressed into the more specific area of biochemistry,
the study of plant biochemistry caught my imagination.
Originally, I was only meant to be here for a year. I came from Europe
with one suitcase, with the sole purpose of total concentration on research.
I lived in Woodside, CA, during the first nine months, but found the commute
a bit too tedious so, during the remaining months, I managed to find accommodations
here at the Center, which gave me a new commute of two minutes. With the
extension of my fellowship to a second year, I never seemed to find time
to move away from the Center and so I am still here. However, I do manage
to escape and enjoy coffee shops, playing pool, and riding horses. Recently
I have taken advantage of the wonderful countryside and weather to indulge
in long hiking trips. So you see, the life of a biologist is wild and
Inadvertently, my position requires a reasonable amount of travel, specifically
with respect to supporting Shuttle flight experiments, in which case I
spend time at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral, FL. My interaction
with other research groups means I frequently travel to places like Virginia
and Colorado. I have also had the opportunity to travel to Brazil and
go on an expedition to collect some unique plant species for research.
It is hoped that I shall have an opportunity to return next year and extend
Likes/Dislikes About Career
I guess the most positive aspect is that I still get up in the morning
and really look forward to my work, with the exception of a few off days.
The negative aspect is that you can see the great effort that is being
made with science to improve life but overall life does not really improve.
All that is happening is that old and established ways are being exchanged
for so called new and advanced ones. This is more like going around in
a big circle than true progress. For example, our technological society
now has the means to cure many diseases but unfortunately, it has also
been responsible for the development of others, so are we really any better
off than we were before? I think we will only have progress when we start
accumulating everything we have learned rather than just exchanging bits
It's going to be hard. As you start, you will do very well if one or
two in every ten experiments work. As you become more proficient, you
learn how to structure your work to maximum effect. I think it is really
important that you suffer and understand the ways of this process because
it teaches you that vital sense of how to overcome obstacles and not to
give up. If you have a true love for science then there are no negative
aspects. It is a very exciting realm where tomorrow always has something
new. Obviously, I have a bias but I think it is an incredibly fulfilling
Photo above: Gerard Heyenga works with plant growth experiment in