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Vanessa Zepeda

PhD student


The Little Mermaid inspired Vanessa Zepeda to study marine biology, now she’s searching for life beyond

Vanessa Zepeda, who originally hails from land-locked Arizona, USA, says she “fell in love with the ocean” after watching The Little Mermaid movie, and dreamed of being a scientist ever since she was a little girl.

After high school, she moved all the way to Hawaii, to study a Bachelor of Science majoring in marine biology and microbiology. And while she may not have found mermaids, the degree opened her eyes to exciting possibilities.

“My journey as an undergraduate exposed me to all the sciences and my love for biology grew from life on Earth to the possible existence of life in the cosmos,” she says.

Listen to Vanessa’s STEM story in episode 2 of The Buzz About STEM podcast

So, turning her gaze from the ocean to the stars, Vanessa signed up for a Masters, this time with a focus on astrobiology – the study of the formation, evolution and future of life beyond Earth.

Are we alone in the universe?

As part of her Masters project and with the help of a mentor, Vanessa had the opportunity to undertake not one but two internships at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where she worked on developing new ways to find signs of life preserved in rocks from Earth and meteorites. During her JPL internship, that same mentor introduced Vanessa to NASA scientist Dr David Flannery, who is also a Professor at QUT in Brisbane, Australia and was on the hunt for PhD students.

“The rest is history!” says Vanessa, who is now in Australia, completing her PhD in astrobiology under the supervision of Dr Flannery.

Through her research, Vanessa says she is asking “the most profound question facing humanity: are we alone in the universe?” More specifically, for her PhD she is investigating scientific methods to use when the rocks collected by NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars are eventually brought back to Earth.

Combining her passion for ocean life and astrobiology, Vanessa’s career goal is to one day be a NASA mission scientist helping to look for life in the oceans of Jupiter and Saturn’s icy moons, Europa and Enceladus.

Vanessa’s study and career pathway


This article was created in partnership with QUT and originally appears in Careers with STEM: Science 2022


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