From oceans to stars: Vanessa Zepeda’s journey into astrobiology

Have you ever been hesitant to pursue a passion? Maybe you chose a different path thinking it might be more profitable or sensible?

Having started out in marine biology and transitioned to astrobiology, Vanessa Zepeda, who interned at NASA, is proving following your passions is absolutely a viable path through the scientific and research landscape.

Trailblazers: From academic insights to real-world impacts
Navigating the many educational pathways to becoming an impactful scientist can be challenging. So to help you understand your options and share a little inspiration for your journey, Cosmos Magazine interviewed five trailblazing scientists who’ve demonstrated academic excellence and whose research is producing elegant solutions to some of the most challenging problems of our time. Read the full series here.

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Trailblazers profile

Name: Vanessa Zepeda

Subject matter expertise:

  • Astrobiology
  • Marine biology
  • Environmental science

Academic background:

  • Vanessa completed a Bachelor of Science (Marine Biology) during which time she was instrumental in the discovery of a new genus and species of bacteria.
  • She’s also completed a Master of Science (Biology and Environmental Science).
  • Vanessa then completed a summer internship in the Astrobiogeochemisty Lab (abcLab) within NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
  • She recently submitted her astrobiology PhD thesis through QUT based on her investigations into the preservation of organic matter in Earth’s earliest submarine hydrothermal systems in order to develop ways to detect extraterrestrial life.

Alternative educational pathways:

QUT now offers a vertical degree combining a Bachelor of Science and Master of Data Analytics, allowing you to complete an undergraduate and postgraduate degree in less time — often as little as four years. Alternatively, explore the advanced science degree, designed for high-achieving students interested in a career in science research.

Current work:

Early inspirations and the path from marine biology to astrobiology via environmental science

Vanessa’s scientific journey is a testament to the power of early inspiration and evolving passions. As a child, charmed by the underwater world of The Little Mermaid, she became fascinated by our oceans. And as her marine knowledge grew, she dreamed of one day becoming a dolphin trainer. When she graduated from high school, she had a checklist of things she needed to do to be able to train dolphins, and one of the items was a degree in marine biology. So off she went to university to get a Bachelor of Science, majoring in marine biology.

During that course, she fell in love with science and has since explored many related branches of biology. Each time her curiosity has been piqued, she’s explored the topic further, talking to scientists and researchers, and studying the most up-to-date information. This led her to a master-level degree in environmental science, then an internship at NASA, and most recently to studying astrobiology, with a geology flavour, for her PhD at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) as part of the Planetary Surface Exploration research group. And if she ever decides to go down another rabbit hole, there’s a good chance we’ll find her unravelling the mysteries that abound in the field of neuroscience.

READ MORE: Postgrad pathways at QUT: Paving the way for tomorrow’s science and technology leaders

A quote from qut phd student, vanessa zepeda, that reads “my tip for budding scientists is to network as much as possible and talk to your teachers, demonstrators, and tutors. Most of us are super nerdy and love to teach, so come and chat with us! ”

This transition illustrates Vanessa’s versatile pursuit of science, driven by an insatiable curiosity about life in all its forms. And it’s a wonderful inspiration for anyone who loves science but is having trouble committing to a particular branch.

You don’t have to pick just one interest. You might do several majors and minors at the undergraduate level, so you can explore more than one branch. And later on, you can always change things up and explore new branches without necessarily having to go back to do another bachelor-level degree.

A quote from qut phd student, vanessa zepeda, that reads “don't put too much pressure on yourself to have it all sorted right now. It's okay to take your time and ensure that what you're doing is what you love because it won't feel like work ever. ”

Quest for extraterrestrial life

At the heart of Vanessa’s current work is the quest to find life in outer space. Or more specifically, her research, poised on the brink of Earthly and cosmic ecosystems, seeks to decipher the signatures of life beyond our planet.

So far, Vanessa has been exploring methods for detecting the signatures of life here on Earth. By combining traditional lead isotope dating techniques with her own novel approaches to determining the source of ‘old’ lead, she can unearth vital information about how habitable a hydrothermal system may have been on early Earth. If she’s lucky enough to get her hands on samples from the NASA Science Mars Perseverance Rover mission, she could then use similar techniques to look for signs that something may once have lived on Mars.

Vanessa is fascinated by many things, but is perhaps most enamoured of extremophiles — organisms that live and thrive in conditions that are normally intolerable to most life, like high temperatures, extreme pHs, and high salinity. And this couples well with studying submarine hydrothermal systems on Earth where extremophiles can sometimes thrive, and which may be similar to locations found on other planets and moons. Indeed, Vanessa’s approach to astrobiology marries her marine biology roots with space science, as she contemplates the existence of extremophiles in extraterrestrial environments.

Down the track, she’s hoping to join a NASA mission to one of the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, Europa or Enceladus, as she believes these celestial bodies, with their subsurface liquid oceans, are the best candidates for harbouring life. No doubt her current work will be invaluable on such missions.

A celestial visionary lighting up astrobiology

Vanessa Zepeda’s journey from the ocean depths to the icy frontiers of space embodies a boundless quest for knowledge and an inspiring career in various branches of biology. Her story is not just about the search for extraterrestrial life but also about the relentless pursuit of one’s passions across the vast expanse of science. Vanessa is a true trailblazer, forging a path in astrobiology and uncovering the cosmic potential for life. If you too want to embark on this kind of journey of discovery, check out QUT’s advanced science degree, so you get researching quicker. Or if you want to continue a journey you’ve already begun, explore QUT’s research degrees and find a project that ignites your imagination.

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