By Jim Cawley
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center
How’s this for a career path: California to Hawaii, to Saudi Arabia, back to California – and finally – to Florida. Meet Aubrie O’Rourke, a project scientist within the Exploration Research and Technology Programs at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
Now that she’s found her way to the Florida spaceport, O’Rourke is helping grow space crops – technology that will one day provide fresh food for astronauts on long duration space missions.
O’Rourke performs both fundamental and application-based science as a member of Kennedy’s Space Crop Production team. She carries out her own research, and she supports other principal investigators working on experiments being launched to the International Space Station.
“This has allowed me to apply my knowledge with confidence and to effectively communicate how our work can benefit space biology, space crop production, NASA, and the planet,” she said.
In a typical workday, O’Rourke checks on microbial cultures and plant growth experiments and prepares items for future lab work. She regularly collaborates with scientists and project managers, including those at other NASA centers and universities. When a project is complete, she drafts manuscripts for publication and presents proposals on Kennedy’s original research.
O’Rourke also leads a Polaris Project, funded by NASA’s Mars Campaign Office, that supports in-flight research conducted in the lab. The mission: to build and deploy an automated genomic sequencer that will allow NASA to monitor microbes that are important for water and food systems off planet. This innovative device will study a microbe living on the space station and determine how the environment of space affects its genome.
O’Rourke grew up outside of Yosemite National Park in California’s Central Valley, as a lover of art, nature, and of course – science. After earning a bachelor’s degree in general biology from the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and a master’s degree in quantitative and systems biology from the University of California, Merced, she ventured off the mainland to Hawaii for a year to fly small aircraft, a skill she had begun learning in her home state.
She then went to Saudi Arabia to earn a doctorate in marine biology at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Her Saudi Arabian experience included founding a horse-riding club titled “Kingdom Equestrians” for her university. There, O’Rourke taught women, children, and men to ride horses, promoting community service and fitness.
“I grew up riding horses, and it was a good outlet away from the lab,” she said. “It was incredibly eye-opening to be able to live outside the states and experience a completely different culture.”
O’Rourke returned to California to work as a scientist researching infectious disease-causing bacteria while concurrently teaching microbiology at UCSD and general biology at Mesa Community College. While working at the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, California, she submitted a postdoctoral fellowship proposal, which was selected by NASA. That launched her Kennedy career in June 2020.
O’Rourke is quick to pass on knowledge she has gained, feeding her longtime passion for mentoring. Whether she is communicating with professionals or young students, she tries to keep it interesting and “user-friendly,” drawing from successful techniques employed by those who mentored her.
“Getting that student who thinks they can’t do it and letting them realize they can if they want to … if you concentrate and learn the principles, you can definitely do science,” O’Rourke said. “Education is an opportunity to change your life.”