If you have ever wondered about what goes on in outer space, the origin of life itself or the future of our universe, Dr. Lena Vincent is the expert you want to talk to.
Lena is an astrobiologist with a PhD and a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) postdoctoral fellow studying some of the most exciting concepts and questions about the universe.
Astrobiology is a scientific field that studies the origins, early evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.
A typical day for Lena is a combination of meetings, writing emails, reading, carrying out research experiments in labs, analyzing data, meeting with collaborators and presenting results.
Lena was awarded an external fellowship with NASA almost a year ago, meaning her postdoctoral work will be funded by NASA for the next couple of years. These opportunities are competitive, but Lena received her fellowship on the first try.
A postdoctoral fellowship is similar to a residency for those who recently received their Doctor of Medicine. Postdoctoral fellows are able to attain funding to write research papers as well as manage laboratories.
It is “a time where you take your training wheels off,” Lena says. As a postdoc, she is showing that she can conduct research independently.
Lena’s work specifically has involved research on the origins of life. To understand life elsewhere, we need to understand how life forms here on Earth and how life originated in the first place.
She aims to answer these questions: How do you get life from non-life? How can we understand life in a way that might inform our search for life on other planets?
Lena did not know exactly what astrobiology was until she was applying for graduate school. She became interested in astrobiology, but she was worried about pursuing it since her prior training was in other scientific disciplines.
Navigating graduate school was a challenge for Lena. She decided to study synthetic biology, which involves redesigning organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities, and microbiology, which involves studying organisms that cannot be seen with the naked eye. From there, she earned her PhD in astrobiology — a huge accomplishment for her.
According to Lena there are two things everyone should know about this field.
- Everyone can be an astrobiologist. Astrobiology is an interdisciplinary field, pulling from many other areas of study like chemistry, geology, history and philosophy.
”There is a need for lots of different perspectives, whether that is in the hard sciences or the liberal arts,” Lena says. “When you’re dealing with questions like ‘What is life?’ things like philosophy, history [and] ethics come up. There is really space for everybody. You don’t need a specific kind of training to be an astrobiologist. I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible to get involved in astrobiology without a science background.”
- “Astrobiology is a growing field — it’s an exploding field,” Lena says. “It’s a really exciting time to be an astrobiologist.”
Lena not only loves science herself. She also loves getting other people excited about science. She has an astronomical social media presence where she shares the latest information in her field.
Even before posting on social media, Lena has been passionate about sharing her science with the public. She has spoken at schools, churches and retirement homes to share about the exciting field of astrobiology.
Lena has become a voice and leader in her field, attending scientific conferences where scientists network together and share ideas.
Being a science communicator is important for Lena, as she informs the public on what is happening in recent times and inspires people to become involved in science. Knowing that other people are excited about her work enriches her experience as a scientist.
Lena’s advice to other women interested in science is to network with people who share similar interests. You never know where one conversation or connection could take you.
She hopes to do away with the trope that scientists are too absorbed in themselves and their work.
“In my case people always think, ‘You’re interested in space, but what about Earth?’” Lena says. “I care about both. I care about being human and being a steward to this planet, but I also care about science and advancing our knowledge.”
For Lena, “she can be both” serves as an important reminder that scientists are humans first.
“You are a scientist, but you are also a human,” Lena says. “Scientists are people first. They have real-world struggles. They have histories. They have stories.”