TEAM ICE: Aaron Regberg looks for life in strange places

Our third curator of the week is Dr Aaron Benjamin Regberg (@aregberg), Space Scientist at NASA Johnson Space Center. Aaron grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, AaronAviUSA and studied Geology at the University of Michigan (BA). He went on to do his PhD in Geoscience and Biogeochemistry at Pennsylvania State University. Aaron worked in industry for several years where he studied microorganisms living in oil reservoirs – such organisms can give us an idea of where to look for life elsewhere in the solar system.

In 2017, Aaron started at NASA,  studying the microbial ecology clean rooms used to store extraterrestrial samples. Aaron’s current science interests include microorganisms capable of surviving in extreme environments and the effect that they have on geologic materials and the geologic record. More on Aaron below.

 

I’ve always been interested in Geology. I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio where there are a lot of amazing Ordovician (~450 Ma) fossils lining the creek beds and in limestone in buildings and gardens. Additionally, my grandfather used to bring me rocks from all over the world when he went on vacation. I also worked at the Cincinnati Natural History Museum as a high school student. I was a “Lab Rat” science interpreter in the cave exhibit. When I got to college the geology classes really appealed to me. I enjoyed them so much that I ended up doing several undergraduate research projects in the department.

 

I am fascinated by the intersection of microbiology and geology. It is astounding that microscopic organisms can cause minerals to dissolve and others to precipitate. Bacteria, archaea and fungi behave like miners, seeking out trace metals and other nutrients. When conditions are right these organisms can have enormous effects on the global climate and the geologic record. Understanding how biology affects geology on this planet should improve our chances of detecting life on other planets.

 

I am a member of the Astromaterials Curation Office at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas.  We work to preserve all of the extraterrestrial samples that NASA has collected. This includes moon rocks, meteorites, asteroid and comet samples as well as cosmic dust and individual particles of the solar wind. We allocate these samples to other scientists for further research. When NASA participates in new missions to collect samples we work with the mission scientists and engineers to develop a sample collection and curation plan that minimizes contamination and maximizes that amount of research that can be conducted using the samples. Personally, I work to ensure that the curation clean labs where we store these samples are maintained in a sterile manner. This involves studying microbes that can survive in extreme conditions (little or no oxygen, low concentrations of nutrients, very hot or cold temperatures) all over the world not just inside our facilities.

 

We spend enormous amounts of time and money sending robotic and human explorers out into space to collect samples so that we can learn more about how our solar system formed. It is important that we protect these samples for current and future research. Additionally, learning more about how life survives in extreme environments on earth will better equip us to look for signs of life in extreme environments on other planets.

 

In my spare time, I have served on the board of directors for Bike Houston and I also volunteer with the ADL.

 

Ideal Day Off? I like to ride my bicycle as much as possible this includes riding for fun, running errands like grocery shopping and occasionally riding 25 miles or so to work at NASA. I also like to rock climb, but that usually involves traveling when you live in Houston. I satisfy the itch locally by climbing indoors at rock gyms. I like to take long bike rides to fun destinations like an ice cream shop, museum or restaurant. I’d follow that up with a quiet afternoon/evening reading on the porch and by cooking a yummy dinner with my partner.

 

Please welcome Aaron to #NASAFireandIce week!

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