Life At the Roost: Engineering for Patients in Need “to the Moon & Back”

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Jessica Snyder
An Interview with Dr. Jessica Snyder, Bioprocessing Application Scientist

Dr. Jon Carson: So we’re starting a new year! As we welcome in 2022, it’s an honor and privilege to be speaking here today with Dr. Jessica Snyder, Bioprocessing Application Scientist at RoosterBio, and one of our most recent hires. My goodness, what a fascinating background that could fling this conversation in so many directions, where do we start? …If you please, perhaps a little about the journey that brought you here to the Roost?

Dr. Jessica Snyder: Thank you very much for the invitation to do this. It’s such a pleasure to be able to talk about all my favorite things. And the only thing I would ask in return is that you have to come to the “hot seat” next!

Carson: OK! I’ll try [You’ll hear] a lot of stuttering, I suppose [chuckles].

Snyder: …So, how I got to the Roost… My background is mechanical engineering, and I studied thermodynamics first, and then I got into biology, and the medical applications of understanding these kinds of things. In undergraduate, I took a course called Computer Aided Design, and I thought it was the most boring class in the world. We were learning about spline curves and how to create all the precursors for three-dimensional modeling. So, one day the professor said “I’m not going to talk about spline curves today—automatically I’m way more interested. And he starts talking about his own research, which is 3D bioprinting. He’s taking all these abstract ideas that were over my head in class and turning them clearly toward a very important goal. And he starts by talking about the artificial heart. Now, the artificial heart at that time—in the early-2000’s—was made out of inert materials like metals, ceramics, and plastics. It’s a huge success; it extended peoples’ lives. But the problem is that the surfaces are not biological… problems in terms of it won’t grow or regenerate. So, you have issues with immune response, you have issues with function over time. He was suggesting that instead of making those same designs out of inert materials, why not make them out of living cells? I’m like, doesn’t that make much more sense? And, logically, that made way more sense than I could stomach, so I said, “I’ve got to be involved in this! How hard can this all be?”

I joined his lab, and through that, I started working on bioprinting cells to try to reverse engineer for tissue engineering. That led me to work on a project for the space program to reverse engineer liver to study how it would behave in microgravity. Through that, I became interested in how, like a hand in the glove, biology fits in its environment—how you could not only use that for creating functional implants of lab-grown organs, but you could also maybe extend that into industrial design. That took me on a path of going to Boston, first, to do a post-doc at MIT, and then out to work with evolutionary biologists at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. And after doing all that, and working really hard at how you could take these issues of bioprinting and its ability to manufacture with cells, outside of a medical paradigm into industrial design, we hit roadblocks in terms of reliability. And so, kind of like a pendulum, going from medical applications over to maybe, lower-stakes, more exploratory industrial design, I thought it was time to swing back and come back toward medicine.

Then I found that RoosterBio was doing so much to try to advance the issues where to get high-quality cell sources—which I thought was a bottleneck in tissue engineering before. It made too much sense to not come back and try to advance that mission, to do what I could.

Carson: That’s wonderful! Amazing background. I’m [also] impressed with how RoosterBio, for some of its customers, has been able to shorten the development time by as much as one to two years, maybe three. That’s one of the reasons I’m attracted here as well. So… I heard something in there about Boston’s environs? Anything you miss about your time up there near the Great River Charles?

Snyder: The tropical weather! [laughs] I miss the people for sure. And living by the ocean, but mostly the people. I think that Boston is absolutely a global powerhouse, and the amount of resources brought to bear in that area is impressive. It’s not unique, it’s not the only place in the world, but there’s a critical mass. There’s a density of people that are “hungry,” that are not intimidated by scientific obstacles, and that are willing to work collaboratively… in my experience. Because if you weren’t, then you wouldn’t go to such a place that has so many people that are trying to do such similar things. That want for collaboration, for solving a problem, and that humble but eternal optimism for “We can figure it out!” I think it’s a pretty unique recipe for actually moving the ball, making a lot of progress.

Carson: Yeah! I hear that. Back in the day, I remember being fascinated by the thought that you could get on the Red Line and then be rubbing elbows with Nobel Prize winners, or future Nobel Prize winners. All just jamming themselves into one tiny place. It’s a neat scene, lots of energy.

Snyder: Can be intimidating? But it’s a physical place where you can actually go to participate in the generation of the next big questions.

Carson: Yes. And there’s a lot to be said for the Frederick, MD and DC areas as well.

Snyder: Absolutely.

Carson: If there’s any thread that I detect, any thread weaving through all your unique experiences, it would seem to be that of “engineering for biology.” …As if not engineering humans to fit our machines, per se, but rather engineering our machines to be more humane. Naturally, this theme could easily blend with regenerative medicine and the space Rooster’s in. How do you see your current role helping to reach towards that goal, that ideal?

Jessica SnyderSnyder: One of the bottlenecks I saw in bioprinting a decade ago was… Where do the cells come from? I mean, the body of work being done in the biofabrication space is where you can use computers to create very interesting models of what human tissues look like. And you can predict how they’re going to move so you can anticipate where you want to put them. There’s an incredible understanding of the way the cells are going to perform. You can even create really sophisticated manufacturing platforms where you can control the architectural arrangement of different cells—even different cell types—in three-dimensional forms. …Really elegantly on the nanoscale, even on the microscales.

So the truncation point, the bottleneck, was not in manufacturing or even in computational modeling. It really was in where are we going to get a cell to trust to put in a person’s body? And nobody had a good answer for that! Because the best way to figure that out is trial and error, and the bold kind of attempts at that were finding that the stem cells that were the most promising candidate for injection were wildly unpredictable. We didn’t know and were sensitive to these features of cells that were scientifically fascinating and yet medically extremely dangerous. So, the big thing that made me come to RoosterBio was the fact that they’ve made great progress towards providing a solution set—a high-quality source of MSC—that can then be used to plug into all of that technology that I thought was so exciting and promising. And so now we’re not looking at people in a lab with ideas that we’re trying, now we’re looking at an actual supply chain. You can actually start to use that supply chain to move things from idea into an actual product, into something that we might start to trust to implant into an actual person. It’s about making traction and moving things into the clinic. And I thought RoosterBio solved the problem that I thought had existed, and I wanted to be a part of Rooster. Also, it’s an excellent way of taking a survey, of understanding what the state of play is in the regenerative medicine field, and getting a sense for what’s needed and what’s not. So, if there is a time to pivot back maybe more into research, I have a good understanding of where the holes are, who the key players are, what’s going on. To be understood, first you’ve got to understand, and that’s part of what I want to develop and succeed in here at RoosterBio.

Carson: Another interesting alignment between your background and RoosterBio’s mission is your work with 3D printing and NASA. As you know, we’ve collaborated a bit with the 4D Bio3 Initiative that works with our Ready-To-Print (RTP) Cells for bioprinting in austere environments. There’s no environment more “austere,” as far as I can tell, than space, maybe? Could you tell our readers what kinds of extra challenges an engineer like you faces to 3D bioprint cells on a place like the ISS or the Moon? And what might be some of the spinoff benefits of that to reach us back here on Terra Firma?

Snyder: First of all, going from the Earth to the International Space Station… One of the first things is weightlessness, a lack of a gravitational force. If we think about Earth as a planet, in the 4-billion years that it existed, almost everything has changed. The gaseous composition of the atmosphere has changed, the temperature has changed. But one thing that stayed the same, pretty much, is the mass of the Earth. And so that 1-G gravity well that we live in has been pulling us down, and we’ve evolved in that space. (Unless we want to talk about transition of life between planets, but maybe not yet!) When we leave that gravity well, it is an alien environment! We’ve seen that there’s physiological changes to a person even before we get to the operator, or even before we get to the printer, itself. And we see fluid shifts, we see changes in balance. And I think it’s amazing that we do so well in a microgravity environment, to think that we’ve evolved so much on Earth. …Getting back to the bioprinter…dispensing technologies. You’ve got to take that into account. It turns out that extrusion actually works pretty well in space. With the lack of gravity to pull the extruded material and have it lay properly onto the fill plate, other factors take over, like surface tension to help things sort of adhere-in-state fairly solid until you can do a secondary curing phase. So, extrusion still works pretty well, but another issue is the radiation. The radiation is harmful to the operators that are working in this environment, but it’s also harmful to the electronics, and that can be a physical printer itself, or it can be communications, the relays. The entire system is vulnerable to solar particle events, or storms from the Sun that blast out all these high-energy particles that could damage the equipment. We have microgravity and radiation, and the stress and fatigue of the operators caused by living and working under conditions that are so austere as you said. That’s another factor to remember. And there’s maintenance of the equipment. It’s not just like a simple going-down to check-in on it to see if it’s okay, you got to take that whole operational plan into consideration, as well.

Having said that, I think myself and a whole bunch of people would line up around the block to get to go up and work on that kind of technology. And the other thing that is so exciting is how promising it is. Because if you can start to make things on-demand—using bioprinting and 3D printing—then you kind of detach yourself from the supply chain that connects the space station to the Earth. You can start to be a little more autonomous, to make things. Whether these are medically-related things like organs, or their food, fuel, and pharmaceuticals, goods, consumables, whatever it is. That autonomy to make what you need and not import it is going to serve the necessary redundancy in terms of supplying goods that is going to enable human missions to go farther and farther out into the Solar System.

One really interesting thing about the Moon is that a “day” on the Moon—the amount of sunlight that the Moon gets is roughly about 14 days of light and 14 days of dark. When you have these extended periods of dark and cold, you are depleting batteries very quickly. And so it’s very difficult to maintain power, making it a very tricky issue. It’s surmountable, but it’s something to keep in mind when we do think about going to the Moon. Where do we want to put our moonbase—or do we want to keep it mobile so that we’re always able to be on the Sun-side, if for power and heat than for nothing else.

Carson: Very interesting! So, if I can respond with a silly cliché, “necessity is the mother of invention,” perhaps because when you put stuff in such a difficult place, a lot of cool new stuff gets done serendipitously, and you discover new things that may eventually find their way back to Earth as well.

Snyder: And the last thing I want to kind of mention about the environment is, if you can put in your mind a kind of picture of the big window in the belly of the Space Station—it’s called the cupula—it’s six feet wide—and the astronauts report that it’s their favorite place to sit and look through the window, and see Earth. One of the astronauts reported that the reason he loved it so much was how familiar it all looked. You’re in this environment where there’s so much that’s strange, but when you look through that window, you can recognize lightning storms, and even cities, and waves, and all kinds of things. That kind of familiarity was grounding, is what he said—and the fact that help is a matter of hours away. In an emergency, it would be right there. Now, if you can call up in your mind a picture, taken from the surface of the Moon, looking at the Earth. And it looks a little similar to standing on the Earth and looking at the Moon… You can see it’s there, but from the Moon you can’t make out thunderstorms on the Earth. You’d understand that your help is a “little” bit farther away, and you’re a little bit more on your own! And hence the importance of being autonomous. Imagine then if you were on Mars and looking at Earth—and that would look like just a dot in the sky. So you’d really have to provide for yourself. You’d have to figure out how to farm, how to provide energy, how to get potable water, what are you going to do? What does art and culture look like on Mars? It’s nice sometimes to get that physical grounding of a perspective to realize how “spreading out” really is going to call for invention on orders that maybe we haven’t seen quite yet, or in a long time.

Carson: Fascinating, thank you. So getting back to the ground for a moment, could you please tell me a little bit about your current role? And what a “regular day” might look like, if there ever was such a thing?

Snyder: One thing I really love about this role is, it gets back to some of the lessons I learned in Boston. And that is, someone else’s success is our success. And, a great thing about having a great source of cells is finding people who could really leverage the technology, leverage the products, and do their own science on top of it. That means us understanding their issues, and our customers understanding the strengths of the products and how to use them. Those two things have to dovetail together. So, a typical day is checking to see if there’s anything that needs immediate attention: are there customers that are highly in need of any troubleshooting? Or trying to figure out what best products plug into their applications. Another really exciting thing is thinking about how you can go from an ideal pilot scale, and scale that up to something that is able to meet the demand in terms of regulatory statues, and scale the number of doses for a patient population. So, we’re not just talking about how do we give a lab a million cells so they can run their research—of course that’s important. As someone from the academic sphere, I think that might be pretty critical. But then, how do you satisfy the real need to write about in the Introduction section of proposals? And we’re actually doing that work! Where we’re trying to find people that are using it, and help them use it the best they can.

So, a typical day involves checking for those issues, and then, whatever those are, we can schedule the meeting, have the meeting, maybe the on-site visit. Less so now in the Age of Corona’. And then, left to my own devices, trying to find out what is the state of play. Who’s making moves in this space in terms of looking at patents, publications, awarded grants, to find out who would we want to talk to, to find out what they’re working on.

Carson: Very neat. I see you helping to lower the “delta-G,” the activation energy of all this, both for ourselves but most importantly for our partners. And helping to find out who might be a good fit for us. Really exciting. …So it seems that you engage with many kinds of people: academics, biotech industry people, people who hold pipets, those who plan it all out on Gantt charts, etc. What kinds of problems do they ask you—as one of Rooster’s technical experts—to help solve?

Snyder: Questions in substance vary, but ultimately, the most common issue is that the Customer expected “X,” and we got “Y.” So it’s a mismatch in expectation. To me the fascinating lens to apply on a question like that is: “Look at how sensitive these cells are in situations that we might not expect.” Sensitive to so many things, from pH, to temperature, to other reactive molecular species, to density of cells, and then co-culture… But also to things very familiar to a mechanical engineer, like the actual physical stiffness of the material they’re adhering to. If you plate MSCs on a very soft gel, it’s more likely to differentiate into fat. And if you plate on a very stiff, fibrous, tensile mechanism or substrate, it’s more likely to become bone. So the most common questions are: we expected this, we got that. And then drilling into “what is the environment that the cells are in; what’s the way that they’ve been handled. Because the cells have a “memory.” Just like us, they want to make sure that they’re situated in their environment in a way where they’re able to protect themselves. That’s anthropomorphizing them extensively, but it involves wading through the weeds of what’s happened to the cell and where is it now. How to understand what we know and what we might not know about the sensitivities of the cell to help guide it towards your performance goals. Those are the most common questions.

Carson: That’s very interesting. Amidst your outreach to our current and pending customers, I also noticed that we happen to be fellow blog authors for RoosterBio’s blog series. That’s a shameless plug, I know! [laughs]. Really enjoyed your first (and hopefully not last) piece, The MSC Standard in the Ivory Tower. It certainly taught me things I didn’t know before. Would you like to share what inspired that and its main idea, so even more readers would want to check it out?

 Snyder: Certainly! When I started with RoosterBio, one of the very first things did was take a look at the very well-resourced publication list on the website. Just to get a sense for what are these products, how they’re being used, who are the partners. And I saw just an incredible range of affiliations that were using the items, that we’re publishing with them. Maybe it was a little bit of fatigue of reading too many papers, maybe it was a little of the engineer coming out a bit—so I wrote a short script that would take those affiliations, find the GPS points for that, and then map them, and then look at over time from the first publications in 2014 or so to now. Who was published and what are the citations—how many citations do each of those publications have? Mostly for my own understanding about what is the global footprint, or global reach of the Company, as somebody new to Rooster. And also I think, really stepping into the role of leading, becoming a reputable source for MSCs, and kind of leading the way that people are thinking about running their research—instead of just “how do we accomplish our goal?” How do we think a little farther and actually plug it into the clinic? I think RoosterBio is stepping into that leadership role. In doing that, it’s important for leadership to do two things, one is absorb ambiguity and try to make a clear way forward. And, to do that with transparency, explaining your logic each step of the way. Part of absorbing ambiguity and explaining your logic, you need to rely a little bit on reputation. For my own edification, I wanted to see who else is applying this RoosterBio paradigm, and in finding that it really was an impressive range of affiliations from across the world, that are creating very well-cited papers. I just felt like that was something that RoosterBio should celebrate as a company, and be aware of… a little bit of reality check on this is momentum and this is going somewhere.

The final thing I wanted to say about that is looking at the global reach of the products, to me, underscores an opportunity to think about when-maybe it would make sense to start creating materials printed in other languages. There are publications of course in Boston and Singapore and many metropolitan areas. There are also publications coming out of Chile and Argentina, the Middle East—and tons of places in between. So how do we try to meet the global need by being a global company, in terms of the way we communicate linguistically, who we talk to, how we get the message out there?

Carson: Yeah, well said. I know that we have ambitions to be a global company, we’ve stated that publicly. But, you know, with COVID-19 hitting… It’s hit the whole world. But I definitely think we’re rarin’ to come back, and we’ve made a very good start as you very adeptly illustrated with that really exciting diagram that I see there, as well as what you’ve written about with the blog. One idea that cannot be infectious enough is how interdisciplinary & diverse environments can powerfully drive technology breakthroughs. I’m reminded of that recent Peter Jackson documentary on the Beatles—4 extremely talented but very different & clashing personalities & skill sets, who somehow made it work, and with great joy, I might add. Can you imagine an example of some of that innovative & creative magic happening around you and your colleagues over the years?

Snyder: Absolutely! That’s a very exciting way of putting it, the zeitgeist that happens. I think that’s kind of always the dream. How could anyone wake up today so sure of something, and then go to bed with the mind completely changed? Not in a way of being flippant, but just a way of being open to the world. And I think the way to do that most responsibly is to find people that are motivated and aligned with your own morality and the things you want to accomplish and have integrity. And then yeah! Be open to that changing of priorities as things become more tractable, or relevant, or possible. The way to do that is to have a clear goal, whether that’s supply MSC to the regenerative medicine sphere, or fly to the moon, or sail across the Atlantic—and then just welcoming people who just want to help make that possible “on board,” letting them create their own role to help push the ball forward in ways that maybe we don’t necessarily see. And then just staying open in the process. I think that that is an exciting parallel to draw. And I don’t know how to create that zeitgeist, how to put it in a bottle or draw it up, but I think that it’s kind of where the future lies.

Carson: I definitely grok with that. Kind of how I see it, a little, maybe… different people bring different perceptions to a spectrum. Imagine some of us can see in the color bands of visible light, and then some of us can see in the blue to ultraviolet, some of us in the red to infrared to microwaves. It’s nice to have that whole interdigitating view of the bandwidths of things that can be known, created on, and worked at. I think that’s very important. [/ “Shifting gears” ] Obviously you’re an engineer, among other things, but you obviously know a lot about technology. You know it well. Any techs that you’re exceptionally bullish about that are emerging in the 2020s?

Snyder: There’s been success with wastewater epidemiology. I don’t know if this term is familiar, but there’s a company called BioBot Analytics. They were in Boston when I was in Boston. And what they are able to do is look at the chemicals, the bacteria, and the viruses in a wastewater stream, neighborhood by neighborhood. And they did this in Boston, and in Kuwait, and have since reproduced this all over the country and globally too. What they’re doing is they’re looking at what the collective microbiome is of a population of several hundred people. And from those measurements, they’re heat mapping human health across the city. This has been a very powerful tool in identifying where coronavirus is during this pandemic. It’s exciting to see the technology rolled out and used in a way that it’s adapted. But the benefits extend far beyond those of the pandemic. If you could potentially predict chronic disease, or show that certain areas are more likely to have chronic disease—that puts decision-makers in public health in a position to act sooner rather than later. It also allows for real feedback in terms of the effects of public health policy. A rough example would be… New York City rolls out a soda tax. The hypothetical benefit of that is people are less prone to diseases like metabolic syndrome or diabetes. How do we test that? The-self reporting on cases like that is limited. The transparency into all of the medical records, for good reason, is also limited. And so, having a tool where we’re able to look at this municipal resource and mine it for information about how we’re doing health-wise is extremely critical to plugging more science into the way decisions are made, especially on a public health level. So I think that that is a wonderful resource, and with time, and with more sophisticated analytics, that come from monitoring something over time to understand what deviations look like, it will be a stronger and stronger resource for actual decision making. So that’s something I’m really excited to see evolve over the next few years.

Carson: That is very exciting, wow. It sounds a lot like the One Health concept, where we converge environment, and human health, and maybe animal health and just [orient] where it all connects. With an approach like that, the measures to combat COVID might not need to be quite the blunt instrument that they have been in certain instances, and can be much better targeted so that people can go on, live their lives… but… more importantly like you say, it’s who’s getting heart disease based on the diversity of their microbiome, really neat stuff!

Snyder: I’m very interested about that One Health initiative. I’ll have to look more into that. Because I think that we can better understand (similar to the cells) how we’re sensitive to the environment in ways that we don’t fully appreciate, so that way we could guide toward healthier outcomes.

Carson: If I may ask about your experience in Antarctica…? Could you tell our readers a little about what that might have been like? And what you brought back from “the last continent?”

Snyder: So I was really lucky! I got to join a field expedition where we sailed from King George Island, in which there’s an archipelago that stretched up from Antarctica to South America—and almost touches—except for the Drake passage, which gets in the way. I flew down to King George Island, which is in the South Shetlands, and then we did a 14-day sail on a 65-foot sailboat called The Ocean Tramp. And… It’s cold… It’s far… And it’s expensive. But if you get the chance, go! It is stunningly beautiful and a really wild place full of even stranger and more charming people. But the reason I went was to look for what lives in the tidepools. But before we get there, there’s an incredible amount of life in Antarctica. There’s the migratory paths that go through that part of the world in terms of the humpbacks, the killer whale pods—some are migratory and some stay in the winter—lots and lots of birds. The emperor penguins live there, multitudes of penguins live there. There’s lots of life and some of it is the “charismatic” megafauna, the whales, and the birds, but some of it is microscopic and that’s what the whales eat—these microscopic plankton. What I was interested in is what can live in those tidepools? That, in the summer, are a liquid, and get tons and tons of sun; some places get 24 hours of sun. And then in the winter, it’s harsh, it’s just the opposite. There’s no sun, it’s completely frozen over. These zones live in a state of animation in the summer where they’re alive, the way we would recognize it—and then they oscillate and switch back to this hibernation state. And they do that for their entire lives! That stagnates the growth of vegetation.  Some vegetation grows at about a tenth of a millimeter every decade. So I took a microscope and went down and took some samples from the tide pools and we put them under the microscope as soon as we got back to the boat. I’d see these green swarms, like tiny flies, that would come through the petri dish—and those were cyanobacteria, little forms of algae that were free-floating and moving like bees. That seems to be how they propelled themselves, this very quick smooth motion. As I’d focus the microscope down, the next thing I’d encounter are these “long,” clear “slugs”—well, not truly long—smaller than the width of your fingernail. But they move like a slinky. They’ll throw their body forward, and then the back of the body will (phew!) suck back, kind of lumping through the microscope field. And if you keep watching, the next thing you see are these little amoebas, and the amoebas float into the frame and then turn on a dime, and then float out like little ghosts. Then there’s everybody’s favorite, the tardigrade. And the tardigrade ambles, with legs, walking like a water bear—that’s what its name is.

In looking at all this locomotion, all the way these things moved, in the way they fit together like a puzzle— similar to what you were saying with the One Health concept—these things don’t live in a vacuum. It’s not like the zoo, where you walk past one animal enclosure versus another. They all have to fit together in terms of the resources they use, in terms of the ways that they move, in terms of the predator-prey relationships, and also this bigger pattern that occurs of going from animation to hibernation. So my role there was just to document what I found, to do a little analysis on the way these things moved in relation to predator-prey relationships—and then to come back and tell that story. I do think that there’s more work to be done in terms of understanding how they can oscillate between these animated states and these dormant states. That would be, I think, a very interesting lens into potentially next-generation technology for freezing or preserving—food preservation systems on long-duration human missions to space, where we’ll need to take advantage of that dormancy and then need to be fresh when we get it. So maybe I’m just making excuses for going to get back down! I don’t know.

Carson: That’s amazing, such extreme selection pressures on all those “bugs.” And yeah, I certainly can identify with looking deep into a microscope and just getting lost in that whole world there. In fact, probably in grad school, people would look at me staring at my cells under the microscope, saying “HEY, they’re getting cold there, buddy, put them back in the incubator!” But it really is fascinating.

Snyder: I agree! I agree.

Carson: Well, that’s about all I have for now for most of my questions. Are there any questions you’d like to be asked where I might have been remiss, or anyone’s work you’d like to plug or would want to talk about?

Snyder: It’s a fascinating time because there’s so much work being done both on Earth and in space. But one thing I did want to highlight is Paul Stamets, he studies fungus. There was a short film that he was featured in called “Fantastic Fungi.” And he just points to all these ways that we can use fungus as a technology. And we can incorporate it to solve some of the biggest problems of today in terms of what to do with plastics, how to clean up the ocean, how maybe to terraform Mars, and so I think he just has this fantastic way of actually integrating biology as a technology—and just no shortage of ideas. So Paul Stamets I think is a pretty interesting person to watch. And another thing I’ll say just more generally is that the publication Science — or “AAAS Science” – has a weekly podcast. Every week they come out with a 30-40 minute survey of the topics of the week. Sometimes they’re inside the publication, sometimes they’re outside. But especially during the coronavirus, I’ve been really impressed by how much they’ve presented, what’s going on across disciplines in a way that’s accessible and interesting. And very technical for those of us that are interested in that. And, the emotional balance of ideas or news about discovery I find to be kind of refreshing—especially in today’s climate.

Carson: For sure! I’ll be sure to check that out—I think I’ve listened a few times, but it would be nice to loop back into that. I have one other last question if you will! This is not a joke question, but I think it’s a fun one! I remember hearing about how you taught in Santa Clara for a summer or two, and one of the topics that you asked your students was “Where would you look for life in the Universe?” Outside of Earth. Could I ask you that question too?

Snyder: Aww… I was asking them because I didn’t know! One thing I would think to say is that there’s more water in the outer solar system than there is on Earth. And that’s on the icy moons around Saturn and Jupiter, where we found it so far. And that happens to be because there’s lots of water and because it’s very cold. So, you end up with these icy shells, and within these icy shells, liquid water. And sometimes, due to the pressure between that icy shell and the liquid water you end up with ice geysers on the surfaces of the moons. Fascinating places. Although I’d hope that there would be life there, I don’t know if we’ll get a chance to explore it any time soon. So where I think there very well might be life is a place like Mars. And, if not today, then ancient life. Now I think there are big planetary science differences between Mars and Earth. Earth is a larger planet, and as such, it has more mass, and that mass has allowed us to keep our liquid core, our mantle, and our crust. Because of that configuration, where we have a mantle, and this churn between the matter on the surface of the Earth and that core, this causes the planet to be pretty consistent. If you drew a line from the top of Mt. Everest to the center of the Earth, and you drew a line from Frederick, Maryland to the center of the Earth—you would pass through very similar compositions in terms of chemistry. Now, let’s contrast that with Mars, a smaller planet. Because it doesn’t have as much mass, the center is not molten anymore; now it has cooled down. It’s still a matter of scientific debate and discovery, exactly what it looks like. But because it’s not churning, it’s not moving, now we see kind of specialization in different parts of that volume of the planet, which we don’t see on Earth where it is actually churning and moving. All that to say, that there’s speculation that different types of salty, compartmentalized brines might be all over that internal surface, that internal volume of the planet. There could be life that evolved in those particular brines, in those particular areas that’s not global in the way that we see life on Earth is very global. For that reason, I think that we might not find it as fast as we would expect, but I think that if we don’t find life or evidence of ancient life on Mars, that would force us to revisit our assumptions about how life originated here on Earth.

Carson: Very fascinating. Maybe, I know, speculative, but because Mars is much more heterogenous on different surface parts, like on top of Tharsis there’s one, and in the Valles Marineris there’s another, and near the south pole, something very different geologically [is going on]. Maybe we’ll find different chemical basis for life [in different habitats]. One might be DNA… we might find an “RNA World” persisting. Who knows? Maybe we’ll find a lot more diversity on Mars at least at the basic biochemical level.

Snyder: You know your Martian terrain! That’s exactly the kind of exciting thinking that makes a lot of to invest in and see what we can find there.

Carson: OK. I think this is all that I’ve got, although I’d love to ask even more questions. But we’re probably running out of time, and you have a job, and so do I! [laughs] But anyway. Thank you so much!

Snyder: It’s been a real treat! Thanks for the opportunity to talk, and again, we’ve got to get you in the hot seat next… or at some time.


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