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Meet: A. Gerard Heyenga, Ph.D.

Senior Research Associate
NASA Ames Research Center

photo of gerard heyenga

My Journals

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 really good.

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.

Personal Information

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 varied.

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 this work.

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 of it.


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 lifestyle.

Photo above: Gerard Heyenga works with plant growth experiment in microgravity environment.


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