Jess Snyder

NASA Ames Reseach Center scientist

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with fervent optimism and growing humility, she carves her own path

Jess Snyder discovers growth in unusual places. as a scientist contracted to NASA Ames Reseach Center's Space Science and Astrobiology Division, she finds life in extreme places, like the tidal pools of Antarctica's South Shetland Islands. and she also advocates for STEM education, specifically to draw more women into a traditionally male-dominated sector. she strikes a covetable balance between disciplined, adventurous, confident, poetic and wildly intelligent. we dare you to make it to the end of this interview without a renewed sense of wonder.


where does your story begin?

“i’m from Atco, New Jersey, which is 35 miles east of Philadelphia, 50 miles west of the Atlantic Ocean, and adjacent to Wharton State Forest: home to pine trees, cedar colored rivers, vines of sun-ripened tomatoes in the summer, and thousands of snow geese in the winter.”


your deep appreciation of nature is obvious. how did you end up at NASA?

“after high school, i matriculated to Drexel University, moved to Philadelphia, and studied mechanical engineering. i chose Drexel for its co-op program (three six-month internships) to gain work experience, including an internship with the Department of Defense and a move to Washington, DC. during my studies at Drexel, i joined a research lab, found my calling, and stayed for graduate school. as a PhD student, i interned for NASA Johnson Space Center and moved to Houston. i defended my thesis, graduated, and then moved to Boston to join MIT’s Senseable City Lab. during my time with MIT, i traveled to Kuwait and Singapore. as my project transitioned from research to a start-up, i moved to California to work at NASA Ames Research Center as Scientist for Universities Space Research Association.”


what kinds of projects are you working on?

“with NASA's Space Science and Astrobiology Division, i work on a team that finds life in the extremes, places like the Sonoran Desert near Baja, California, and the tide pools of Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands.back in the lab, we determine how these organisms can survive by finding their unique adaptations. these findings are useful for scientific goals like the search for life in the universe, and engineering applications like industrial design for human missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.”


what’s been the most fascinating discovery so far?

“Drexel University Professor Wei Sun and i discovered that our bioprinter, which builds copies of human tissues by dispensing cells along a 3D toolpath, could actually change what a cell was. i designed and patented a bioprinting method that has since been licensed for commercial development. in the next 5-10 years, lab-grown organs made using 3D printing could help patients waiting on transplants — this is a step towards building organ replacements (which requires many cell types) using a biopsy of just stem cells.”


why do you do this work?

“my professional identity is a mechanical engineer who uses manufacturing and biology to grow (as much as build) things that are naturally scarce, which includes organs for patients awaiting transplants or textiles for a crew sent to Mars. i use engineering and biotechnology for industrial design in support of human missions to space for two reasons: because there are benefits to people on Earth, and i am uniquely qualified to do this research. my education and work experience have given me an uncommon and frankly privileged point of view. i accept the challenge of carving my own path, with fervent optimism and growing humility.”  


what does a day in the life of a NASA scientist look like?

“i wake up, go for a 15 minute run, then ask myself, ‘what is the next most important thing i have to do?’ the first answer is always: plan. then it could be read, communicate with collaborators, engineer, lab work, or field work.”


what do you wear to tackle it all?

“the JET SET TROUSER is hands down my favorite. i need to explore the Monterey tide pools for marine life, return to the lab, meet with collaborators, and go out to dinner in the same garment. this does it with style.” 



how do you unwind?

“my guilty pleasure is anything sweet. i’ve never met a desert I didn’t like. when not working, i’m in the water. last spring, i swam from Alcatraz to the San Francisco waterfront. Odyssey Open Water Swimming runs these events every few months. this spring, i want to scuba dive through the kelp forests of Monterey. i plan to dive to the bottom and lay on my back. the bubbles from my breath will push the leafy kelp away and let in a column of sunlight, which attracts the fish and marine life to play (so i’ve heard).” 


magic! where else have you been?

“in early February, i sailed 550 miles through Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands as a Guest Scientist with Quixote Expeditions aboard the Ocean Tramp — a 66 ft ketch rigged sailboat. the owners are pioneers of sailing the Southern Ocean and they made my trip possible through a program they established to support original scientific work as part of their charter cruises. the charismatic megafauna — the humpback whales, orca, and fur seals — are one part of Antarctica's wildlife, but there are many microscopic organisms that come to life during the long summer days and comparatively warmer weather.” 


it’s very cool that your life’s work brings you so much joy, and weaves its way into your travels. what did you discover there?

“i went to the South Shetland Islands to find the smallest inhabitants of the continent. i searched the moss and tidal pools for microorganisms, which provide new insights for biotechnology in space. i went to better understand how these highly adaptive organisms oscillate between animation and hibernation to discover mechanisms that would preserve biological resources during the many years of a human mission to Mars.”  


 what’s the last book that inspired you?

“The Long Way, a memoir by the French sailor Bernard Moitessier. Moitessier and his friends dreamed up a race around the world without stopping or assistance. their dream became a sponsored competition: the Golden Globe Race in 1969. nearly a year into the race with several hundred miles left, Moitessier was on track for the fastest voyage. he might have won, but he resigned. he let the experience change his priorities and decided he had nothing to prove. moitessier canceled his plans to return to Europe by slingshotting a message on a passing boat. his reason for becoming a vagabond? “because i am happy at sea and perhaps to save my soul.” the book is his observations while sailing alone. it is a love letter from Moitessier to everything he learned along the way. let him convince you to find your own untapped potential. read books written by people you want to be more like, i say.”


you are so wise. you must have a mantra. 

“you’ll never get enough of something you don’t need.”