MEET AN ASTROBIOLOGIST: DR. SANJOY SOM


Geologist, Astrobiologist, Engineer – NASA Ames Research Centre

Research Scientist, Director – Blue Marble Space Institute of Science

 

DrsDr. Sanjoy Som is a research scientist at the Exobiology Branch of NASA Ames Research Center. His is also a systems engineer for Fruit Fly Lab, a scientific program to study fruit flies on the International Space Station. Fruit Fly Lab – 1 launched in December 2014. Broadly, his research involves investigating the connection between geology, geochemistry, and microbiology in geological systems that involve the reaction of water with sea-floor rocks, through a combination of field, laboratory and theoretical studies. His work on investigation of fossil raindrop imprints to study the ancient Earth atmosphere was published in Nature. He is also the CEO of Blue Marble Space, a non-profit organization whose mission is to enable and promote international unity through space exploration. Blue Marble Space has started several outstanding initiatives including One Flag in Space, Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, Green Space, and curates sciworthy.com. Dr. Som has remarkable enthusiasm for science outreach and communication, which led him to co-found SAGANet.org, a platform for science communication, education, and outreach. Most recently, he inspired the formation of Astrobiology India as an initiative dedicated to encourage growth of astrobiology research and education in India.

Let’s meet our very own Dr. Sanjoy Som.


 

Interviewed by Benu Atri

Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, USA

 

Welcome to Astrobiology India, Dr. Sanjoy, we are really happy to have you with us today. Please tell us a little about yourself and how you got to where you are today?

Thank you for having me. I am an Astrobiologist. I was born and raised in Switzerland. When I was 19, I moved to Florida, following my dream of space exploration. I did my bachelors in Aerospace Engineering from Florida Institute of Technology. It was a great place to study aerospace, being so close to the Kennedy Space Center. When my degree was over, I realized I had more questions than I had answers, so I applied to graduate school in Seattle, for a Masters in Aeronautics and Astronautics from University of Washington. In the second year of my masters, I took a class called Planetary Atmospheres in the Atmospheric Sciences department at UW, taught by an Astrobiologist (at the time, I knew nothing of Astrobiology)My paper for that class was titled, ‘Water on Mars’. I very much enjoyed learning about this topic, what it meant for the possibility of life on Mars, and spent most of my time working on the paper and somewhat ignoring my engineering classes. This caused me to re-assess my professional direction. I decided to finish my masters and then I started graduate school again, to get a PhD in Planetary Sciences and Astrobiology from University of Washington, where I merged my interest in fluid dynamics with problems in Earth Sciences.

Following my doctoral work, I came to NASA Ames Research Center to do a postdoc in Astrobiology and Geochemistry. This involved studying the chemistry of hot springs, trying to gain insight into the life in those hot springs, without doing any direct biology. In essence, I was assessing the habitability of springs based on their geochemical constituents. When I finished my post doc, I wanted to stay at NASA Ames, because of the stimulating environment Ames is, and because I had an excellent mentor. It was thus too soon for me to leave as I still had a lot to learn. But, I needed funding. So, I had to knock on doors to see how I could fund myself. Fortunately, I found the opportunity to work  part-time in the flight systems group as the Systems Engineer for one of their flight project. And this is how I got to be where I am today.

You said you are from Switzerland, but isn’t your name Indian?

It is! My mother is Swiss and my father is from Calcutta, India. That’s why I have an Indian name (my middle name, Marcel, is very European). Unfortunately, I do not speak any of the Indian languages, although I did take Hindi at University, but have forgotten most of it sadly. I have been to India many times, absorbing the culture, and enjoying the food. I made one adventurous, “Indiana Jones-esque” type journey to India to find my Indian ancestry, which I found north of Calcutta. Of course, it wasn’t as extreme as Indiana Jones, but did involve time in libraries, talking to people, and going places I didn’t expect to go. I would like to visit India again in the coming years.

You have a lot of feathers in your cap- aeronautics, astronautics, atmospheric geology, astrobiology, and entrepreneurship. How did you become this versatile scientist that you are?

I was just following my interests and even when my interests changed directions, I continued to follow them. Indeed, I would take time to think things over and have conversations with friends and family, but most of the times, I would end up following my gut and taking those directions, even though they were a little bit risky. There was some circumstantial luck during the process but good luck and bad luck are both part of life and one has to embrace both. Sometimes, when things did not go as planned, I just needed to be able to accept that and keep moving on. For example, the professor I was going to work with, after I took the leap of faith of leaving engineering, left the university after 3 months! This profoundly changed the direction of my research, but I credit my enthusiasm and my curiosity for carrying me through, even when things got tough.  Not taking the easy route is I think how I ended up here, and I feel that I have my dream job now. It is pretty cool to be able to say that at 35!

Indeed, it is. Follow your gut – that is a great advice for any aspiring scientist. Allow me to change the topic here a bit. One of the things you studied is Atmospheric Geology. It sounds like a fascinating field. And it is new. Could you tell our readers what this field is about and what interests you specifically?

Atmospheric geology is the study to understand past atmospheric properties using geology, which is the study of rocks. Some rocks hold a surprising amount of information about the air that existed when the rocks formed. For example, we know that there was no oxygen in the atmosphere of ancient Earth, because, some of the minerals that we find from that time period could not have formed in the presence of oxygen, like pyrites (iron sulphide- FeS2). We look for pyrites in river rocks, also known as detrital pyrites, and you know they are from a river because they are rounded (among other things). Given today’s atmosphere, because there is a lot of turbulence in the rivers, oxygen gets brought in the water as well, and any kind of pyrite would oxidize to another mineral like hematite (iron oxide- Fe2O3). Hence, the fact that we see pyrites in ancient Earth sediments tells us that there was no oxygen in the water that transported them, thus no oxygen in the early Earth atmosphere. That’s how you can get to the chemical properties of the atmosphere of that time.

What has interested me though, are the physical properties of the atmosphere, for example, I want to know what the atmospheric pressure of ancient Earth was. Right now, we have 1 bar of pressure on the surface of the Earth but I don’t think there is any reason to believe that it was the same throughout geological time i.e. over the 4.6 billion years that our planet has been alive. I came across some incredible findings from other scientists who had found imprints of rain in ash that were almost 3 billion years old, which is also a period when there was no oxygen in the air. These imprints are essentially craters formed by falling raindrops. One can easily understand that if the atmosphere was thin, the drops would fall fast and the craters would be bigger and if the atmosphere was thick, the drops would fall slower and the craters would be small. Because, the maximum size of raindrops is independent of atmospheric density, the size of the craters serves as a proxy for air density, and thus pressure. We measured the size of those raindrop craters on those early sediments and compared them with today’s raindrops on the same material and we were able to back calculate the air pressure of that time. There is a probability that the air pressure back then was less than it is today, which is very interesting. (You can read about this work and these findings here). Interestingly enough, this started as a side project! Again, following my nose in some risky project paid off really well in this case.

I am very excited to ask you this next question – you are the systems engineer for NASA’s Fruit Fly Lab 1, a new research platform for the International Space Station that will support long-duration fruit fly studies in space. How did you embark on that journey?

Once I finished my post doc at Ames that was the end of my funding as well. I needed to find a way to fund myself. I became a soft-money scientist, which meant that I had to write grants, get them funded and fund my science through that. That was rather stressful, because I hadn’t been very successful in writing grants and the state of the economy is such that the rate for successful funding of grants was around 15%, so it would tough to make a living exclusively on funded grants. I needed to find alternative solutions. Also, I wanted to stay at Ames, because as I mentioned before, I find it to be a fascinating and stimulating place to work. So, I talked to people about potential opportunities. Someone mentioned that the flight-systems group was growing and they have new projects, so there could be an opportunity for me. To me, that was a fantastic idea. I had always wondered what it would take to send a payload into space. This would be a fantastic opportunity to learn about that. So, I knocked on doors, seeking out potential opportunities and then I found this one: to develop a new research platform for the International Space Station that will support long-duration fruit fly studies in space. The team was very small; I ended up being the systems engineer for this project. And there were challenges; it was a steep learning curve for everybody. But it was nothing short of a wonderful, cohesive team to have pulled this off. A SpaceX Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket with our payload called the Fruit Fly Lab 1 launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Jan. 10, 2014 and was delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) for studying among many thing, the effects of microgravity on fruit flies.

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(You can read all about the Fruit Fly Lab on Sanjoy’s blog at http://1.usa.gov/1Ew40Nm)

How did it feel to see the launch? What is the status right now?

Two days before, I packed all the flies and equipment and placed them in labeled bags and handed it over to the people who would put them in the rocket. Then, we got to watch the whole thing take off, which was just incredible. The way luck had it, it was a night launch, and exactly half an hour before the launch happened, the ISS flew right above us. Wow. The launch itself is absolutely incredible! You see the bright lights of engines fire come first and then you feel the pressure wave and hear the roar of the engines. It was a fascinating feeling.

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The lab came back a few weeks ago and scientists are working on it right now, analyzing for data. We’ll see what comes out of it. The goal being to use the lessons learned from Fruit Fly Lab 1 to send more flies to space and do better science. Flies have a short life cycle, between eggs and adults and eggs, which is much shorter than a mission duration so you can study multiple generations of microgravity bred progeny and study effects of microgravity on immune system and growth. We have to keep in mind though, that all the space biology being done on the International Space Station is to enable long term Human Space Exploration. On that note, let me tell you a fascinating fact. Around 70% of the fly genes that are responsible for fighting diseases in flies have homologs in humans. This is why we send fruit flies to space: because we can gain insights about human physiology in microgravity.

How can any scientist send their research to ISS these days?

Nowadays, there are so many commercial companies that are sending payloads into space. It is actually getting easier than it used to be. It is no longer NASA alone that can send payloads. A Google search for – commercial space payloads will lead you to different companies that can do that. Indeed, while it is a NASA facility, a lot of private enterprises are taking advantage of the commercialization of space flight, and university students (and younger!) are putting their payloads in space on a regular basis. There is also a government organization in the United States called Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which also sends payloads into space. If they select your project, they fund it, with you as the Principal Investigator and then you can send your science through them. It has become very doable.

Would you like to go to the ISS?

Of course! There is a big difference between being an ISS astronaut and being an astronaut leaving Earth orbit to truly explore. Don’t get me wrong, I think the ISS is the world’s most awesome lab to work in but the thought of leaving the Earth orbit, in a tin can to go the Moon or Mars, is the thought that really gives me exciting goose bumps. It’s the true next frontier. To answer your question though, given a chance, yes, I would go in a heartbeat. It’s a great place to do meaningful science and contribute to the future of humanity in space and on Earth.

What was the inspiration for your non-profit Blue Marble Space?

I knew about Dr. Carl Sagan very early in my life. He was one of the very first successful science educators to be able to convey science to the masses in a way that was awe-inspiring. He played a big role in shaping my teenage viewpoint about what science can do, and today how important it is to communicate the power of science.

I gave a talk at the International Aeronautical Congress in Glasgow in 2008. At the end of my talk, I proposed the Blue Marble picture as a symbol for international unity in space exploration. The Blue Marble picture is just a picture of the whole Earth taken by humans as they were coming back from the moon in 1972. Very simple! We all agree that astronauts are the ambassadors of Earth in space, so if they could wear that symbol, I thought it would send a really powerful message of international unity globally, which might have important repercussions on Earth.

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Wearing that symbol would say that we are, above all, and despite our difference in religious beliefs, nationality, and ethnic origin, one humankind working together. Our differences should be a source of richness, not a source of conflict. The talk was very well received. At the end of the day, there was a plenary session and during the Q&A someone asked a question to one of the directors of a space agency – “What flag should we use when we return to the Moon?” One of them replied – “All the flags of all the nations”. And I thought, “Well, that’s impractical!” Furthermore, it would actually defeat an opportunity for true unity. So, I raised my hand and someone handed me a microphone and I opened the flag with the image of the Earth on it and asked “Well, what about this?” To my surprise, the entire auditorium started clapping. It was an incredible feeling. I walked to the stage and gave the flag to the space agency director. That deeply affected me. I think that is how everything got started. A couple of months later, I thought to myself, let me push this idea as far as it will go, and we will see what happens.

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Afterwards in 2009, I incorporated Blue Marble Space as a Washington State non-profit to give this idea some kind of legal structure. I launched the website oneflaginspace.org on Earth Day in April 2009. In December of that year, I remember sitting with some of my friends in San Francisco. We were talking about what we’d do once we finished our dissertations. Remember that 2009 was in the midst of the financial crisis, so job prospects were rather grim. We were all immensely interested in outreach. Unfortunately, outreach may not necessarily be seen as a positive thing when you are at university; this negative viewpoint is called the Sagan effect. There is an unsaid saying in academia that one should really minimize outreach, because it takes time away from your research and scientific output. I would contend that by saying that doing outreach makes you a better scientist. We asked ourselves, wouldn’t it be wonderful to work for a company that does science and outreach hand in hand, where outreach is not stuck on the side because it is something you have to do but something you want to do. That was how the seed for an institute of science was sown, and what is today the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science (BMSIS), where science and science outreach is done concurrently. We eventually applied for federal recognition as a non-profit, which we received in 2011. Watch the Blue Marble Space Intro Video.

Few months later, there was the AstroBiology GRADuate CONference (ABGRADCON) in Montana and it was then I realized listening to all the wonderful talks, particularly one about teaching astrobiology in Tanzania, that astrobiology is a really powerful means of capturing the imaginations of the public. We all have lied down in a field at night and looked at the stars and asked the questions – Are we alone? Where do we come from? What is the future of life? All these questions can be answered through science. This is why the field of astrobiology is so cool and is a really good way to get people involved in science. Simply, it is because astrobiology hooks people with a question that they have already asked. It is tangible. However, there was no easy way for the public to engage scientists in an easy, informal way or to connect with other like-minded people. Many of us scientists do public talks, but most often there is no public follow up. So that’s how Saganet.org started as a social network for science bringing together scientists and science enthusiasts.

We started mentoring and connected with classrooms over the Internet. It was a very cool and satisfying experience. Now, we are trying to formalize all this through the SAGANet Mentoring Labs, where we train scientists and graduate students to be effective mentors and communicators. Then, we put them in a classroom where they can put those new skills into practice. Soon, we hope to be accredited. Since then, we have started some incredible initiatives, and of course, Astrobiology India (astrobiology.guru) is one of them.

You must have a very busy schedule but all work, no play is no fun. In your spare time, what do you do for fun?

I cannot say that I go home and switch off my brain. To be honest, I am always brimming with ideas about the non-profit and science outreach, when I am not doing science. However, I also enjoy keeping fit – cycling and running. One of my interests is in genealogy i.e. understanding the roots of my family. I love to travel and all my travels are motivated by my very strong interest in ancient civilization and history. It is just fascinating to me how all those ancient civilizations were very successful but things happened and they disappeared. There is so much that we can learn from history. I have also enjoyed flying. I have a private pilot license. It is an incredibly freeing feeling when you first fly an airplane on a solo flight, but I haven’t flown in a few years because it is quite expensive!

I obtained my PADI Open Water Scuba Diving certification few years ago but have not gotten the time to pursue it lately. Luckily few years ago, in 2009, I had a chance to be onboard ALVIN, a submarine that is operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (www.whoi.edu/main/hov-alvin/), where we went down in the Pacific seabed looking for hydrothermal vents. That is the closest I have been to being on another planet. You are in a confined space, breathing canned oxygen, and outside is an environment that could kill you in an instant. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. It felt very out of the world, but that is a little bit off-topic. Let’s see, what else do I do? I recently got into brewing beer. My first batch tastes very good!

What advice do you have for young scientists who want to become an Astrobiologist at NASA?

Stay curious. Working at NASA is incredibly rewarding. However, nowadays, there is a whole plethora of opportunities outside NASA and one should look at them too. But the way to get into NASA is to do internships, connect with the scientists there, and get involved in their different programs. If you are done with a PhD, do a postdoc there. I will emphasize that whatever you do, make sure it is something that interests you. Ask questions. Curiosity will take you very far in your career. Keep those goals going, and even it if not at NASA, there are a plenty of organizations, universities and private companies doing amazing science, and amazing astrobiology, it is growing at a very fast pace.

In my opinion, we all need to have a dream that is slightly beyond our reach, so that we strive to get to it our whole life. Compare that to having a goal that you can easily reach. Once you get there and not have something bigger to get to, you will stagnate. It is really important in life to have a very ambitious dream. At the same, I will say that if you don’t get to it, it’s okay. The journey to that dream would have opened up a bunch of opportunities and taught you so many lessons about yourself and about life, that, in the end you would be glad you stayed persistent.

What are some of the resources available to one interested in outreach and mentoring?

There are a lot of ways today. There are podcasts, Twitter, Facebook and blogs and if you are in sciences and like to write about your science, let us know on SAGANet. We’d be happy to give you personal blog space and can highlight your blog. Similarly, if you like to tweet, let us know and you can tweet for SAGANet. That will make you a part of a collective. Advanced students in science can join our mentoring initiatives, although there are many other initiatives that allow for mentoring. In fact, doing it informally in your local community is something that is really important. Children need role models. At SAGANet, we will train you and equip you with proper resources to mentor younger students. Also, you can also write about science at Sciworthy.

What are some resources for Astrobiology for someone not very familiar with the subject?

A really good book and a very easy read, in my opinion, is Astrobiology: A Very Short Introduction by David C. Catling. Also, a Coursera class on astrobiology called Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life taught by Dr. Charles Cockell, professor at University of Edinburgh, is available for free, online. It is quite introductory but touches a lot of topics. Coursera also offers a course called Origins – Formation of the Universe, Solar System, Earth and Life by Dr. Henning Hack. The number of textbooks on the topic is growing. One is Planets and Life: The Emerging Science of Astrobiology by Woodruff Sullivan and John Baross, it is a really fantastic book. If you just want to learn more about astrobiology, join www.saganet.org, there are always very exciting discussions going on. Another great resource is www.sciworthy.com, it is a science news website, with summaries of research laid out in a non-technical and understandable format for the public.

What are your thoughts on astrobiology.guru as the most nascent initiative for propagating public awareness on astrobiology in India?

Astrobiology is a growing discipline in India, particularly today with the every exciting Mangalyaan mission. I have been very excited about it. I hope to come to India in the next few years and do some outreach myself. Astrobiology India is an initiative to further promote astrobiology, but with an Indian flavor. It is a website to highlight Indian people, Indian places, and Indian research, in an international context of astrobiological work; to connect the interested Indian reader with what is happening in India. I’m looking forward to working with everyone to making this a success.

Well, of course, Dr. Som, as Astrobiology India team we are dedicated to spreading the word about astrobiology and strengthening the astrobiology community worldwide. It is our pleasure to have you in our team. Thank you so much for your time and such informative and inspiring Q & A!