Engineer turned astrobiologist James Bevington’s STEM career is out of this world.
Astrobiologist James Bevington has firsthand experience living on the Red Planet… sort of. James had just arrived from the US to Australia to kick off his PhD at UNSW Sydney when he applied to NASA to take part in a mock mission to Mars – spending eight months living on the side of a remote volcano in Hawaii, at 2500m above sea level – and he got in!
James deferred his PhD, and took up the post of commander of HI-SEAS Mission V to help NASA understand how team dynamics and human psychology fare in an extreme environment.
Career launch path
James says he’s always followed his interests, which meant signing up for a degree in biosystems engineering. Then, during a Master’s in Environmental Engineering at the
University of Georgia, he became increasingly interested in synthetic biology. “Basically engineering microbes to become little chemical factories”, he explains, which meant studying “life at the extremes”. And it doesn’t get much more extreme than life outside of Earth.
James then switched to astrobiology. “I describe it as studying life at the edges and trying to understand where the boundaries are,” he says.
With an engineering undergrad and Master’s degrees under his belt, James completed a Master of Science (Space Studies) at the International Space University in 2015 – two years later he was living in cramped quarters, commanding a crew of five and conducting experiments ‘on Mars’.
James says he and his crew all agreed it was one of the most important experiences of their career. The work James was doing on the simulated Mars mission slightly shifted his research focus at UNSW when he returned to Australia.
James’ PhD – which he’s almost finished – involves conducting experiments on the International Space Station (ISS) to study life at the edges and the plausibility of life on Mars.
For example, he recently sent a plant to the ISS that had been engineered to have a controllable circuit in it. “We could flick a switch in the plant and it would turn from green to white,” he explains.
Experiments like these could help humans on real-life missions to Mars in the future – like enabling us to use engineered plants to synthesise medicines, 56 million km away from Earth.
To the future and beyond…
James dreams of going into space for real and is working on a space startup to send mini satellites on exploration missions.
Sending satellites to space is currently the domain of big agencies like NASA, but “that’s not how science is done,” says James. “Science is done with different labs across the world, reproducing each other’s experiments and adding knowledge incrementally. I’m trying to make planetary exploration a bit more like that, so anybody can send a mission to Mars.”
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James’ study and career pathway to becoming an astrobiologist
- Bachelor of Biosystems Engineering, University of Tennessee-Knoxville
- Masters of Environmental Engineering, University of Georgia
- Master of Science (Space Studies), International Space University
- Commander, Mission V, HI-SEAS
- PhD, Space Life Sciences, UNSW
This profile originally appeared in Careers with STEM: Science 2021
Author: Gemma Chilton
Gemma has a degree in journalism from the University of Technology, Sydney and spent a semester studying environmental journalism in Denmark. She has been writing about science and engineering for over a decade.