Day one for me at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is best remembered as OBA –Overwhelmed By Acronyms. I felt like a stranger in another world. All through graduate school I envisioned my future as an academic professor. I love to teach. I get great satisfaction out of sharing my enthusiasm for science and encouraging paths to discovery, especially when it is returned to me by others. When it came time to seek out that job, I felt the university tenure system would undermine my personal and professional wellness, so I broadened my future vision –that is when my career path took an abrupt change of course. The Science Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument team was looking for an organic biogeochemist to work on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and future astrobiology missions. It was a natural fit and a fortuitous opportunity. In retrospect, I think I was destined for NASA without ever knowing it.
I come from a family of engineers and technicians. My father contributed to some of the electrical connections used on the Space Shuttle. Like him, I was an inquisitive kid and enjoyed science at school, but I also loved art. It was on the return drive from visiting James Madison University, where I would eventually attend for my undergraduate degree, that my career path set its course. The rolling blue-green mountains were awe-inspiring. I decided right then and there that I wanted to know how they got there. What forces of nature brought them to their gentle majesty? Curiosity got the best of me.
I became a professional geology student – learning everything I could about the rocks and their story. Being submerged in a topic of my choosing was an amazing experience as an undergraduate student. I loved geology. Working hard came easy, because I was having fun. My release into the world as an independent adult also opened the door to risks. This manifested itself in a love of the outdoors and adventure sports such as rock climbing, mountain biking, and whitewater kayaking. I was quick to accept that risks and their consequences (good or bad) are part of life, and that both can be managed by applying awareness and knowledge. Some of my greatest experiences started the moment I committed to a risky adventure. I can’t imagine life without stepping into that void. It is these experiences and the people I have shared them with that have added great richness to my life.
After college, I did everything I could to stay engaged in geology, taking on odd jobs that helped me figure out that I wanted to become a research scientist. I also felt that I was missing something-the rocks tell a story but it only makes sense if it is combined with an understanding of the processes that helped form it-including microbial life and climate. I went back to school. At Penn State University, my research was partially supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute and Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium. In 2001, I received the first Gerald A. Soffen student award from the NASA Astrobiology Institute two years after the institute’s inception. At that point, my mother predicted that I would work at NASA some day – I rolled my eyes whenever she said it (sorry, Mom).
Seven years later, I graduated as Dr. Jennifer Eigenbrode, with two degrees in hand, and a greater knowledge of the Earth as a system, how microbes shaped our planet, and how we detect and interpret organic molecules left in the rocks by past life. NASA also supported my post-doctoral research in which I sought to understand how to pick apart organic molecules from past life and the life that was living in and on the rocks today. I went to the arctic to study ancient rocks and cold climate microbes, which is where I started thinking about how we could do the same type of investigation on Mars. And then I met the SAM team, who planned to use the same type of instrumentation I’d been using for the last 10 years. As I said before, we were a natural fit. Fortune was on my side.
It wasn’t my mom’s prediction that led me to NASA. My path to NASA had to do with my expertise fitting NASA’s needs, but I think there is more to it. I share a spirit with NASA’s charge to explore the universe in search for life beyond Earth. No matter how you argue it, NASA takes risks-it is simply the nature of space research. I take risks too and welcome the adventures they bring. I’ve also found outlet for teaching at NASA. I reach out to the public whenever I can. In fact, my greatest moment at NASA so far was talking with Morgan Freeman, who was researching content for the “Through the Worm Hole” show on the Science Channel. That day Morgan exercised his talent, challenging our discussion as he shifted his “position” from strongly religious to the president of the United States and then to God. I explained to him how we will use SAM to detect organic matter that the Curiosity rover encounters on martian rocks and how we may decipher its sources, whether from life or not. It was that day that the magnitude of such discoveries dawned on me. I know colleagues that were inspired to pursue a career in science or engineering by man walking on the moon or the Hubble images of deep space. Will the MSL mission fuel similar inspiration? Speaking with Morgan Freeman was a special moment for me at NASA, but I don’t think my greatest moment at NASA has come yet.
My story may sound like everything just fell in place. What it doesn’t quite convey is how hard I worked to network and collaborate with scientists effectively. A major part of this success was learning to understand people and situations rather than judging them – or myself. Understanding myself-what I want, my strengthens and weaknesses– has helped me be productive at my job. Now I am on an adventure of a lifetime –exploring Mars for organic molecules and the story they hold. Better yet, I get to share this experience with a fantastic team of scientists and engineers.
My one piece of advice for the next generation is to love something. Find your passion and build on it by applying your creativity and critical thinking. Passion and curiosity are the drivers for acquiring knowledge. But its real value is not in having it. The value of knowledge lies with how we choose to use it. I have chosen to use my knowledge to study life on Earth and beyond, if it is out there, and NASA is helping me do it.