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Aubrie O’Rourke Trained Dolphins, Researched HIV, and Is Helping NASA Get to Mars

And she's just getting started.

by Samantha Cole
Apr 30 2017, 8:00pm
Humans of the Year

To hear her life's highlight reel, it seems like Aubrie O'Rourke has done just about everything short of finding the Ark of the Covenant.

She's worked with jellyfish in a neuroscience lab, trained dolphins with the US Navy, did field work in the Yucatan, moved to Saudi Arabia and dove in the Red Sea, and came back to California where she's begun researching bacteria aboard the International Space Station. She got her pilot's license in Oahu, simply because it's "very technically challenging with pretty big consequences," she said.

Yes, she realizes it's been a whirlwind.

Ultimately, however, it's "the small things" that have captured O'Rourke's focus, she told me over the phone. Literally the smallest living things: Microbes and microorganisms, and how they behave all around us. She studies how they exist in the two most vast environments human imaginations can currently take us: The ocean, and space.

The love of the small things began as a child gazing into tidepools around Monterey Bay Aquarium. "It started out with just thinking the ocean is beautiful, and [its] creatures are so incredibly alien," she said.

"It started out with just thinking the ocean is beautiful, and [its] creatures are so incredibly alien."

Now a marine scientist postdoc, O'Rourke is a recipient for NASA's Space Biology Program fellowship with the Sloan Foundation. When she spotted the call for applicants and looked at their culture collection sheet, she realized it contained a cousin of the Burkholderia bacteria she was working on at the time.

"That being in the water system is not the best, particularly for long-duration space travel," she said. "By the chance that there's a long-duration space mission and someone becomes ill, how likely is it that this bacteria is going to try to take advantage of this illness?"

A Burkholderia infection could easily kill someone with an already-compromised immune system, especially on on a year-long journey to Mars. Previous studies show that radiation in space can make immune systems weakened, while making bacteria more antibiotic-resistant. She'll study 22 past ISS missions to advance this research around Burkholderia.

She carries with her the experience from King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia, where she did her favorite work: Diving in the Red Sea, collecting sponges to study HIV-1. Through this research, she found that marine life, like sponges, have the right "toolkit" to fight HIV-1 virus—especially since retroviruses are thought to have originated in the ocean 450 million years ago.

What is it about these two deep expanses that fascinate O'Rourke now? "I'm very drawn to the unknown," she said. "The ocean is amazing, and space is amazing, and there's a lot of things we don't know about both of them"

If she had to advise young scientists who want to explore their career in the same wholeheartedly adventurous way she has, she would tell them the same thing her father—who took her to the tide pools to see those Earthly aliens—told her: "Don't think about it too much, Aubrie. Just do it."

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