Community Spotlight: Dr Lauren Liddell, lab manager for NASA’s BioSentinel mission

Want to go to Mars? Let’s ask Dr Lauren Liddell, lab manager for NASA’s BioSentinel mission! Lauren talks about ‘one-shot science’ and the day-to-day at NASA, including space-themed gyms, beer brewed with space-bound yeast, and simulating deep space radiation. If you’re also looking for your dream position – or if you’re just curious about what it takes to be head hunted by NASA –Lauren imparts valuable advice for early career researchers and students, and how the Association of Industry-Minded Stanford Professionals (AIMS) helped to find her dream position. Phew! What an interview!

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Feel free to connect with Lauren and learn more about her research here!

Nia Cason: Hi Lauren, could you introduce yourself in a few words?

Lauren Liddell: Hello, I’m Lauren Liddell and I’m a staff scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, located in Silicon Valley in Northern California, where I’m working on the BioSentinel mission. I’ve been here at NASA for a year, and before that I was a postdoc at Stanford University. BioSentinel is a small nanosatellite that’s going out into deep space to detect what kind of effect deep space radiation would have on living organisms. If we want to send humans to space, eventually to Mars and beyond, we need to know how to best mitigate the risks associated with deep space travel, mainly radiation damage. So we’re sending the yeast saccharomyces cerevisiae – the same organism that’s in bread and beer – as a biosensor. And why yeast? Despite a billion years of evolution, we share hundreds of genes that are important for the same basic bodily functions, including metabolism and DNA damage repair. BioSentinel is set to launch on the Orion shuttle for Exploration Mission-1 – what’s cool about that is that the Orion shuttle is the same shuttle we plan to send manned missions with humans. So this will be the first mission sending life into space, past low Earth orbit, since the Apollo days!

NC: What inspired you to choose this research topic?

LL: My PhD was in DNA repair & molecular genetics in yeast as a model organism, at the City Of Hope Graduate School of Biological Sciences. From there, I wanted to try something new; I took on a postdoc position at Stanford’s Department of Genetics, where I was working with sea anemones to investigate the effect of global warming on coral reefs. It was exciting and I enjoyed my time there, but it became clear that I didn’t want to work in academia. So, I looked towards biotech or a job where I could also use my social skills and where I wasn’t just at the bench all the time. NASA is a really good overlap between biotech, academia, and government.

NC: What’s the day-to-day like at NASA?

LL: I’m the lab manager, so I order chemicals and lab equipment, check lab safety, and conduct my experiments. One of my favourite tasks is supporting the engineers with their spacecraft testing. In the lab, we can do several trials per day, but in space, and with millions of dollars invested, you get one shot – just one shot. So, we have to do a lot of ground tests, practice runs, and we simulate conditions in space, such as using a linear accelerator (Brookhaven National Laboratory) to hit the yeast with high energy particles similar to those they’d encounter during the mission.

The science team here is quite small – a research associate, myself, project scientist Sergio Santa Maria, and our PI, Sharmila Bhattacharya. There’s also civil servant experts who provide insights based on their previous missions, as well as software engineers, chemical engineers, fluidics engineers, electrical engineers, system leads engineers, and then the program managers, and deputy program managers. It’s a very diverse team, which is what I love about this project. People at NASA work hard but it’s mainly 9-5, and people don’t usually come in at weekends unless there are approaching mission deadlines or sample returns from the International Space Station brought down on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. There’s a space bar on campus, and a gym – I’m pretty sure it’s the only gym where all the pictures on the walls are of the moon, lunar landers, mars rovers, and astronauts.

NC: What problems did you encounter during your thesis or post doc?

LL: First, the San Francisco Bay Area is very competitive. It seems like everybody has a PhD and flies a plane… I’m serious, Nia! I lived in a house with 16 people from all over the world during my postdoc, mostly students, and everybody in that house had an MD, or a PhD, was a pilot, sociable, a CEO of a start-up company... So, because it’s so competitive, it can still take 6-9 months to find a job.

Also, for the amount of work you do and for your expertise, post docs aren’t always as well paid as they should be. Moving around, making new friends, establishing a new support system… it’s very difficult. At the same time, I feel very lucky to have been a postdoc at Stanford. The School of Medicine Career Center was very helpful in my career development – they thoroughly prepare people to apply for outside academia positions. The Association of Industry-Minded Stanford Professionals (AIMS) was also key while I was searching for my future career and building my network.

NC: Could you tell me more about your transition from academic research to industry?

LL: I love science, I love being a scientist, but I’m not only a scientist: I love to play soccer, I’m learning how to skydive, I love to dance, go to musicals and music festivals…  I needed to find a career that allowed all those other parts of me. However, things were kind of scary once I’d decided to leave academia behind, as I didn’t have anything lined up. I felt like I was driving down a road but then, all of a sudden, my tyre had blown out from under me while I was stuck out in the desert. I must have applied to 50 or more companies, cold calling them – I found out that’s probably not the best way to apply to jobs. I then reached out to my contacts and got a couple of interviews that way.

I’d also thought about a liberal arts professorship when I was in grad school. After many informational interviews with professors and deciding to leave academic research behind me, I realised that I could satisfy my love for teaching in other ways. I volunteered at the Tech Museum of Innovation teaching DNA laboratories to museum guests. I’m still engaged with that teaching component with NASA events; recently, we had a table at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco adult nightlife science outreach event that they host – there’s drink, food, a DJ, we even sampled “BioSentinAle” beer brewed by one of our engineers from our yeast strains at the event!

NC: Are there any other scientific events you recommend?

LL: I went to a lot of AIMS events and seminars; I found AIMs very helpful as a postdoc while I was searching for my future career. Their events allowed me to do some informational interviews with invited speakers and to make contacts with people in industry. For one AIMS event, they invited a bunch of people and CEOs of various biotech companies to a wine and dine event, and gave us the opportunity to go around and talk to all of these people. I made contacts who later remembered me, and I actually applied to some of those companies.

The conference I’m sad I don’t get to go to next week is the ISSR&D conference. There’s going to be a tonne of astronauts, I think Elon Musk is going, Blue Marble Space, SpaceX… everyone that’s important in space research. Our lead scientist, Sharmila Bhattacharya, is giving a talk there.

NC: Do you have any other advice for PhD students/post docs?

LL: Throw your resume out there – it’s important to reach out to contacts, no matter how long it’s been since you talked to them, as well as alumni, friends of friends of friends, and anyone else willing to help young people find their path. And start looking for positions as early as possible. Apply like crazy, network like crazy, ignore the imposter monster telling you, “you’re not good enough!”, and with some luck, it’ll work out!

Also, you learn something from every single experience, even if it’s “I really hate doing this”. If you’d have asked me as a graduate student or post doc if I’d be working for NASA, it would have sounded like an absolute dream – I’m so grateful and lucky to be a scientist at NASA working on a very important mission.

NC: What scientific personalities do you follow online?

LL: The Tech Museum of Innovation has a blog page that their volunteers write for, so that’s a science blog that explains science to lay people. I also like to listen to podcasts, so I often listen to This American Life, Radiolab, TED Radio Hour, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s podcast, StarTalk. Neil de Grasse Tyson is like today’s Carl Sagan, he also has The Cosmos on Netflix, an updated series about the universe and creation. I highly recommend.

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