Dr Sarah Kessans is a scientist with big dreams and the skills to make them happen. Sarah is a biochemist and works in the field of synthetic biology – a combination of engineering and biology, which involves designing or redesigning biological systems for new and useful purposes.
Sarah is also a keen adventurer, and this has taken her interest in plant biology and biochemistry to a new level. In 2016, Sarah applied to be a NASA astronaut – along with over 18,000 other space enthusiasts. After a trip to the Johnson Space Center to do lots of tests and interviews, Sarah made it to the top 50 applicants! This sparked her current interest in space research – growing tiny protein crystals in microgravity. Proteins play a central role in living things. Because they are such complex chemical compounds, there is a lot that scientists still don’t know about them.
The force of gravity affects everything on Earth. This ‘pull’ can distort some of the physical processes that scientists are trying to study. A microgravity environment enables scientists to observe these processes without distortion. The International Space Station (ISS) is essentially an orbiting microgravity lab, but it is difficult for most scientists to get access to it. Sarah is taking a different approach. Instead of using a large lab on the ISS, she is creating a tiny autonomous research lab – so small that it can fit in your hand. Sarah has named this miniature protein crystallisation lab LUCY – short for Lysozyme μ (gravity) crystallisation payload and with a nod to the Beatles’ song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
It can be difficult to grow protein crystals on Earth, but in microgravity, it is possible to grow near-perfect crystals that are larger and of better quality. This will allow Sarah and her team to get much more information about the structure and function of a protein. Having a better understanding of a protein can help create more-effective medicines for example.
Getting LUCY into space
LUCY may be a tiny payload, but it still needs to get into space. The tiny research lab sits inside a CubeSat. LUCY is a mini lab in a very small box in a nanosatellite! The small box acts as a safe house for LUCY, with temperature, pressure and humidity controls. There’s also a lot of technology in the box – sensors and a camera to monitor and analyse crystal growth along with a radio to send back both images and sensor data. The CubeSat has a 2-year mission and then it will be deorbited and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere so that the satellite does not become space debris. Sarah won’t be able to observe the protein crystals in person, but the sensors on board will provide the data she needs.
In addition to gathering data, LUCY’s launch is about testing the technology. Sarah hopes to continue creating minilabs to test experimental proteins. It’s part of a much bigger dream she has to colonise Mars!
In 2023, Sarah's team received nearly $10 million from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment Endeavour Fund to continue this research. Sarah will be collaborating with Tāwhaki Joint Venture to weave together mātauranga Māori, innovation in aerospace and environmental rejuvenation.
As humans we’re an exploring species – it’s part of human nature. Eventually, we will be living in space and on other planets. We’ll have to be able to grow food and have the resources to keep humans alive.Dr Sarah Kessans
Growing food in space
Food, as we know it, will not grow on Mars. Martian soil is toxic to our usual crops, and cows and other animals require a lot of resources like feed and water. We’ll need to create foods that are easier to transport and grow in different ways.
Scientists already know the genetic instructions that synthesise foods’ delicious chemicals and flavours – Sarah refers to cellular DNA as chemical recipes, with the genes providing the steps in the recipe. Using synthetic biology methods, scientists can engineer new food organisms, which would form the raw materials for some innovative and creative Martian cooking. The new foods may come from natural sources like algae, yeast and fungi – things we are already using in our current foodstuffs!
Nature of science
Sarah’s miniature protein crystallisation lab demonstrates the collaborative nature of science research. Building a functioning lab, safe house, sensors and CubeSat and getting it into space requires the work of biochemists, engineers, fabricators and a company with rocket-launch capacity.
Making things happen
Sarah’s can-do attitude underpins her work as a senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury, but it also extends outside of work hours. Sarah volunteers her time as a mentor with the Scientists in the Classroom and Adopt-a-Scientist programmes and is an Aerospace Christchurch committee member. She’s keen on developing relationships between the education and space sectors.
Tenacity and adventurism have always been a part of Sarah’s life. She competed in an Atlantic Ocean rowing race – a nearly 5,000 km trip in a small, wooden ocean rowing boat. After 46 days of rowing, Sarah’s boat capsized during a tropical storm. She and her teammate spent 16 hours on top of the upturned hull, battling huge waves and fierce winds before being rescued. Two years later, Sarah was back in the race with Team Unfinished Business. This time, Sarah’s team finished the race and broke the previous world record by 17 days.
Sarah is keen to get young people into space-related jobs. This article has more information about the kinds of people and jobs that form the space sector. Then tackle the activity Can I work in the space industry?
People may be able to colonise Mars in the near future. The article Tāwhaki – ecosystems restoration and aerospace opportunities looks at how the local and global communities are working to protect space while we learn more about it and eventually occupy it.
Watch Sarah Kessans’ How to eat ketchup on Mars TEDxChristchurch talk on YouTube to learn more about her work as a synthetic biologist.
There’s a lot happening in the Aotearoa space sector. Discover some of the networking teams and industry bodies:
- New Zealand Students’ Space Association
- New Zealand Astrobiology Network
- Women in Space Aotearoa New Zealand
- Aerospace Christchurch
This NASA video looks at microgravity research aboard the International Space Station.
This resource has been produced with funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the support of the New Zealand Space Agency.