To Become More Than Little Oddities in the Lab: An Interview with NASA’s Lynn Rothschild

Lynn Rothschild accepts the 2015 Isaac Asimov Science Award at the AHA Annual Conference in May.

Dr. Lynn J. Rothschild is an evolutionary biologist, astrobiologist, and senior scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. Rothschild accepted the 2015 Isaac Asimov Science Award from the American Humanist Association at their annual conference in May, which gave me a chance to ask her about her path to researching the origins of life on Earth as well as the possibility that life exists elsewhere. (A version of her remarks in acceptance of the Asimov award will be published in the year-end issue of the Humanist magazine.) Did you dream of working for NASA in your youthful days or is it something that came about in the course of your scientific career?

Lynn Rothschild: I was absolutely fascinated by the Apollo 11 moon landing. I was in summer camp in Maine at the time and I begged a camp counselor to let me get up in the middle of the night to watch Neil Armstrong land on the moon. In the end they decided that not only should I watch it, but that it was important enough that the whole camp should watch. I ended up sitting there with the camp director. Bless her heart, she never sent me to bed.  We ended up sitting there for hours, transfixed on a little black-and-white television.

I never really thought about working at NASA though. What happened was I did a PhD on chloroplast evolution [in cell biology], and then I met a professor at Harvard who invited me to give a talk there. When I finished he said, “Did you know that NASA would have paid for your PhD?” I looked at him like he was crazy. “They’re very interested in the potential for life elsewhere and they fund a lot of early evolution work,” he said. I later found out that he gave NASA my name. Then they started sending me information about postdoctoral fellowships and that’s how it happened. Those of us who remember the moon landing as you do remember a lot of guys with buzz cuts in white shirts, but not so many women at that time.

Rothschild: That never occurred to me. That never bothered me. Has NASA been a good place to work for you?

Rothschild: Unlike universities that have more clearly defined departments, NASA has various problems it needs to solve. They’re looking at humans in space, for example, and Earth sciences where they’re looking at Earth from space, and astrobiology where they’re looking at other planets and stars for potential for life.

I’ve been involved to some extent in all three. You can see that every one of those crosses disciplinary boundaries. It’s allowed me to really follow the questions rather than worry that I’m up against the disciplinary boundaries. So, in that way you’re able to be much more creative when something like synthetic biology comes up. I’m the sort who’s very self-motivated and scholarly, so I was able to pull myself up and be a player in the field. I’m not sure a university would have allowed me to do that, but [coming from NASA] I was able to bring new perspectives to the field.

The Humanist: In your talk at the [American Humanist Association] conference, you made the point that we only have one instance of life to work from.  I read somewhere that NASA has identified water as one important criterion. Do you have other criteria specified for what you’re looking for?

Rothschild: Water is the main thing. It’s the solvent for all life on Earth, and there is a lot of it in the universe.  There is the potential for other solvents, but they have trouble in prebiotic chemistry. It looks like an aqueous medium is a really good idea.

I’m actually much more concerned that we have organic carbon there. Carbon can form four bonds, so it can make all kinds of flexible, exciting molecules, including some really big ones. The only other element that does that is silicon, and it doesn’t do nearly as exciting things as carbon. Now, on the Earth there’s a lot more silicon than carbon, but in the universe there is much more carbon. So, it you were going to have a silicon-based life form this is a great place for it—but we don’t find it here. To me, the first thing you look for is organic carbon, and next water. Finding any kind of life, or just evidence of life elsewhere in the universe would be thrilling, but I think for many people—

Rothschild: I know where you’re going. Let me just clarify this. There’s the possibility that life can be transferred from planet to planet, we know from meteorites. The first thing, if you found life on Mars, would be to determine if it’s our cousin or a completely independent form of life. If it’s our cousin it’s still interesting. What happens if you’re separated for three-and-a-half billion years? And there is no doubt that the Earth and Mars have exchanged some material so that is a viable possibility, right? Where I was going, of course, was to the question of intelligence.

Rothschild: To me it is relatively trivial. We have evolved intelligence on earth multiple times. If you look at the great apes, dolphins, and whales, and even the octopus, as well as elephants, these are all instances of the independent evolution of intelligence. But we don’t have evidence of multiple origins of life. Actually, I think the bigger stumbling block is the origin of life. Once we have life we have some pretty clear evolutionary theories about how you go from there to intelligence. So if you had to place a bet, would you think that intelligence and life probably go together?

Rothschild: Well I think the selection pressures could well be there for intelligence. Particularly in a long-lived species like us, it’s important to have flexibility. Look at elephants and migration. You can do all sorts of things with intelligence. It’s another evolutionary adaptation, just like running. Right. Although the usefulness of running is clearer than the usefulness of human intelligence on some days!

Rothschild: Well, we’re outsmarting predators. We are not particularly strong, we are not particularly fast, our ears are not particularly good, but we can keep up with intelligence. We can make tools. We can make fire. We can extend ourselves. Indeed. If things go ideally for you in the next few years what would the most wonderful outcome of your research turn out to be?

Rothschild: We have so many projects, it’s hard to choose. There are two sides of the house— there is the astrobiology side, which includes finding the most amazing extremophiles and what that means for the search for life in the universe. But we’re also working on the origin of life proteins. That to me would be incredible, if we can make short chains of amino acids that could occur naturally and show they have enough function to move towards being a living system.

The other side is synthetic biology. We’re making a lot of things using biology from biodegradable drones to self-folding origami. Very cool stuff. So I think my fondest wish in the next two or three years is to start to have these projects really take off. We have the potential in some of these technologies to get [beyond] some chemical, environmental, and geopolitical issues.

I want the chance to really rip, and see some of these become more than little oddities in the lab.