Plant biologist Robert Bowman is involved in the development of plant habitats for future spaceflight.
Where do you work?
I work for Lockheed Martin as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center, in the heart of Silicon Valley, California.
Image to right: Robert Bowman is developing plant habitats for growing plants in space. Credit: Robert Bowman
What degree did you obtain?
I have a bachelor's degree in biological sciences from California State University, Chico, a master's degree in botany from California State University, Chico, and a doctorate in systematic botany from the University of California, Davis.
What motivated you to pursue your career?
I have always been fascinated by studying living things. As a youngster, I had pet spiders, newts, and my own vegetable garden as well as all the normal dogs, cats and other critters. I chose to study biology because I was fascinated by how living things survived and reproduced under difficult growing conditions. Early on, I found much enjoyment in sharing my knowledge and experiences of living things with others, especially young people. I have had careers in university teaching and research, commercial plant breeding and space sciences.
Briefly tell about the life experiences that made it possible for you to work at NASA?
I pursued my science interests because they fascinated me, not because I was looking for a job. I was trained to teach university level biology. Fortunately for me, NASA needed a trained plant biologist that could integrate many different perspectives into development of future space plant habitats, and sell the ideas to space hardware developers and space researchers.
What was the most important experience that prepared you for your job?
While in college, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with a plant population biologist. His mentoring taught me much about plants and how they live and reproduce. Most of all, he shared with me a genuine excitement about learning from the living things that surround us. That excitement started many years ago, and continues to this day.
What's the coolest thing about your job?
I get to work with and be surrounded by incredibly talented people that share many of my same interests. It's amazing to see what other people can do, and be a part of their successes. Even though many of my co-workers are in other fields such as engineering and computer sciences, it's thoroughly enjoyable to watch others excel in what they do.
Describe your role in plant research.
I like to study whole organisms, living in their own unique environment. While other researchers like to dissect apart organisms and see how they are built and how they work, I am fascinated with trying to understand how organisms and species survive and reproduce in a complex world, challenged by both physical and biological surroundings. In order for a species to persist through time, it must be able to thrive, despite challenges thrown at it by a competitive world. It must also generate viable offspring to perpetuate the species. Plant reproductive biology is amazingly complex; it can also be beautifully simple. As any gardener knows, it can be difficult to have your flowers and vegetables grow well. As a space scientist, it is even harder to have plants thrive and reproduce when you reduce the garden to a small box such as a tiny plant growth chamber.
Please comment on the difficulties of living and working in space.
Space is a challenging world for all living things, including humans. Besides weightlessness, there are many other aspects of life that we take for granted here on earth that do not apply in space. If there is no up and down, then how will plants know where to put their roots? Imagine living in a sterile metal box with very limited volume for several months or years at a time. No pets, no loved ones, no houseplants, nothing alive around you, just whirring machines and blinking lights. We find much comfort in sharing our world with other living things. Life in a speeding spaceship destined for a faraway planet could, indeed, be a very challenging existence in ways we can only begin to imagine.
Why do you think plant research is important to the success of space exploration?
We all need something to eat. Only plants are capable of harvesting sunlight and converting it to edible food. At some point, it is simply impossible to take along enough food to keep us fed and happy on prolonged space missions. Plants can recycle used nutrients back into energy-rich foods that we can use again. And best of all, they can provide living companionship to space-weary astronauts that watch them grow, flourish and then eat them.
Because plant growth will be an important part of space exploration in the future, plant biologists like Robert Bowman are working today to learn what they need to know to make growing plants in space possible.
Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services