NEB Podcast #24 -
Interview with James Bevington |NEB Podcast

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Interviewers: Lydia Morrison, Marketing Communications Writer & Podcast Host, New England Biolabs, Inc.
Interviewee: James Bevington, Ph.D. candidate, University of New South Wales, Sydney

Lydia Morrison: Welcome to the Lessons from Lab and Life podcast. I'm your host, Lydia Morrison and I hope that our podcast offers you some new perspective. Today I am joined by James Bevington who's currently finishing up his PhD at the University of New South Wales where some of his experiments have been conducted on the International Space Station.

Lydia Morrison: James has had an interesting career path beginning with a degree in biosystems engineering, followed by the Masters in Space Studies program at the International Space University. He's now applying all he's learned about engineering, earth science, microbiology, and space studies to explore how biological systems behave in space and the possibility of life on Mars.

Lydia Morrison: Hi James. Thanks so much for being here today.

James Bevington: Thank you.

Lydia Morrison: So you've had a really interesting career journey. You started as an engineer and then you moved on to HI-SEAS. So can you tell our listeners what made you want to apply to the HI-SEAS program?

James Bevington: So HI-SEAS is this simulated mission to Mars and when you read what it takes to do this, you're living in isolation, you don't have much connection to the outside world, you have to be totally self-sufficient and I realized that that was probably the closest experience I was ever going to have to the way humanity has lived up until a few hundred years ago. And so I thought, "Well, like I want to try that." So to really be able to understand what humans had gone through in their past and also it's the closest experience I'll probably ever have to being an astronaut so I thought, "Well of course, sign me up."

Lydia Morrison: So what got you interested in planetary exploration?

James Bevington: So planetary exploration to me is really looking for life in the solar system and trying to figure out what the boundaries of life really are, because we don't have much of a really like agreed upon definition of what life is. And part of that is because we really only have the example of life that we find here on earth. And so if we had another example of life from another planet or a moon somewhere, then that would help us really understand a little bit more about what life actually is and isn't.

Lydia Morrison: That's interesting. I feel like your perspective on planetary exploration seems actually really introspective too. It's a lot about psychology and a lot about sort of the really deep questions of what defines life. So can you tell us what space life science is?

James Bevington: Yeah, so I think of space life science as more as us sending life from earth into space to understand how it behaves there. So take a bacterial culture that we know how it grows on earth and then seeing what being in space does to it. So in space you have different gravity and you have radiation and these are some forces that have never been seen on earth. So if you think about evolution, it may, a microbe may have come from an ancestor that was hot or cold, but it definitely didn't come from one that lived in space. And so it's kind of a very different type of pressure that life hasn't seen in the past.

Lydia Morrison: And how do you apply synthetic biology to your research or why synthetic biology in space?

James Bevington: Yeah, so synthetic biology on its own is to me kind of the way an engineer would try to understand biology and with an engineering background, it makes sense. We're taking a cell apart and we're putting it back together and that's how we learn about how it works, which is very different from the sort of standard science approach, which is to really think about it and ask a question and then answer the question, but also it has applications. And so I think of synthetic biology is kind of like a 3D printer but for biomolecules. So you can take the same starting materials and a tool or a set of tools and build almost infinitely many different biomolecules. So like a medicine, you might not know what kind of medicine you're going to need on a mission before you leave, but you can take the same starting materials and some synthetic biology tools and then make any of the medicines that you could even dream of.

Lydia Morrison: Seems like a much more powerful medicine cabinet than your average ibuprofen and Tylenol that you might pack.

James Bevington: Yeah and of course if you can do it in space, you can do it right here on earth too.

Lydia Morrison: Right. That would be a pretty cool like medicine cabinet on demand. So has research in space life science grown in the last five years?

James Bevington: So historically doing experiments in space was pretty much done by the space agencies and it was really difficult for outside researchers to garner the resources or even be able to access something like a space station. And recently NASA has opened up space station to external partners. So there's a standard interface that we use now and that enables us to be able to build payloads and the payloads are much smaller than historical ones, just miniaturization of electronics and batteries, et cetera, have enabled us to get a lot more in a smaller package than we could have 20, 30 years ago and so what you're seeing is a lot more experiments going up.

Lydia Morrison: So what are the limitations on experiments that can be sent up?

James Bevington: Yeah really it's like a funding issue and a lot of people don't even realize that they could send something to space. When I go to like a microbiology conference and I tell people like, "Yeah, you could send something to space and it's actually not that expensive to do." They all look at me like, "I had no idea that I could do that. Where do I sign up?" And so really part of it is just people don't know. The other part that's a challenge is you have an interface between the science and the engineering. So you have a microbiology lab, they may have a scientific question that's really important, but to be able to get it into a box that's then going to fly to space requires an engineering team. And there's a lot of interface issues there that are really difficult for a science and engineering team to work through.

Lydia Morrison: But obviously your background lends itself really well to thinking through those problems.

James Bevington: Yeah, exactly. So being able to do the engineering and the science and really cut out a lot of the conversation and get right to the root of the solution quickly has been really helpful in the past experiments I've done.

Lydia Morrison: Yeah. Where do you see space life science in the next five years?

James Bevington: So one of the things that I'm hoping to do is to start a research institute specifically aimed at doing planetary exploration and sending some microbiology payloads to space station. I'm really hoping to develop payloads for scientists that can be reused and really taking away that engineering problem for them and just being able to say, "Here's a cube. If you want to fly your thing, you figure out how to fit it in this cube. The cube already has a lot of the tools that you would want anyways. It's standard, here's the user's manual. You can figure it out now in the lab."

Lydia Morrison: So how big is the payload box?

James Bevington: So the standard size is 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters, which is four by four by four inches, roughly and it has to be a mass of one kilogram, which is equivalent to 2.2 pounds. So it's pretty small.

Lydia Morrison: So you're not going to put a pipette in there.

James Bevington: No.

Lydia Morrison: So what kind of tools can you fit in there?

James Bevington: So everything has to be automated. A lot of times we'll maybe use a pressurized bag of some sort to deliver fluids with a valve or we can make some pretty basic optical measurements, like green fluorescent protein fluoresces really nicely with a black light and so we could do that and take an image of it for example.

Lydia Morrison: And all the buffers and all your reagents and everything, that will need to fit in there too.

James Bevington: Yeah. And normally you figure out how you can deliver all of those things at once. You might have one fluid addition, rather than if we do it in the lab, we might have 10 fluid additions. You pre-mix everything and it's all in one pot.

Lydia Morrison: And miniaturized.

James Bevington: And miniaturized.

Lydia Morrison: So can you tell us about your projects that are currently being conducted on the international space station and that you must have fit into that four by four box?

James Bevington: Yeah. So the one I'm most excited about is some DNA that we sent to space. So we did a genomic DNA extraction and then we stored DNA in two different forms. One was in a TE buffer and another one was lyophilized. And so we put that in a box, sent it to space station, it was up there for a little over half a year. We also measured the radiation dose with it. And we've just gotten the samples back. I'm actually here at NEB this week, so that we can make measurements using the RADAR-seq method to look for DNA base pair damages. And so I've just completed the first library and looking for data to come back over the weekend.

Lydia Morrison: And I can see the excitement in your face. How big of an accomplishment is this?

James Bevington: Yeah, I didn't think a year ago that I was going to be here doing this. I'm really excited to be here and working with NEB of all companies. I didn't think when I started in biology, I'd be here doing this.

Lydia Morrison: It's been a pretty amazing journey you've had so far.

James Bevington: Yeah, definitely.

Lydia Morrison: So what's one thing that you learned from the eight months that you spent locked in a biodome with five other individuals in the HI-SEAS program? What's the one thing that you learned from living in that situation that you find yourself applying to your life on this planet?

James Bevington: Yeah, I learned so, so, so many things. I think one of the important ones is the power of one individual. So we had a crew member who decided that rather than doing dishes after we ate, it would be better to just do them while you cook and so he just started. When he cooked, he would wash the dishes and he didn't have to, and gradually this spread and within three weeks everybody was doing the dishes while they cooked and we never even had to have a conversation about it, that we were going to change that protocol. And that was really powerful to see that one person could really just change the way an entire group behaved and that was really powerful. And it also works with mood, if people are upset it just takes one person to go, "Hey, everybody's in a bad mood, I'm going to do one nice thing." And next thing you know, everything is reversed and everybody's in a good mood again and I thought that was really powerful.

Lydia Morrison: Yeah. That's a pretty amazing message of how the ripple effect can really take hold, especially psychological because I imagine that there were some psychological challenges with living in such a confined space with a group of strangers when you moved in together. Did you guys have a hard time with conflict? Were there lots of like conflict resolution scenarios that you had to deal with?

James Bevington: Yeah. So we learned how to deal with it. Before the mission, we sort of set out a protocol that we would use where we would approach someone and say, "Hey, I want to talk to you. Whenever is good for you," so that it would be on the other person's terms. And then at some point we would sit down, but we realized pretty quickly that conflict was much more like two people working on a problem together then them fighting against each other. And as soon as you reframe a conflict in that light, it's so much easier to come to a solution because it's not like winner takes all or winners or losers. You're just two people that otherwise really like each other and get along well, just have this problem that they've got to solve and come to a conclusion on. And it's the same as any other problem that we have to work on in any given day.

Lydia Morrison: That seems like another pretty great life lesson that you picked up in there.

James Bevington: Yeah. I learned a lot while I was there definitely and having the crew that I had, I mean, they're the ones that taught me all of this stuff.

Lydia Morrison: So your stories I think are really inspirational. And I think the observations that you've been able to make are really inspirational. Who inspires you?

James Bevington: Yeah. So I get my willingness to do crazy things from my mother. She is 61 and just started grad school.

Lydia Morrison: Wow. Awesome.

James Bevington: So she's starting her second Master's in psychology because she always wanted to, and her husband thinks she's crazy, "Why would you want to do all this work? You know, you're like at retirement age," this is the worst thing he can think of, but she's like, "No, I'm going to go do it." And so I definitely see that my willingness and desire to go off and do crazy things like a bunch of degrees and lock myself in a bubble comes from her and I'm learning to embrace that.

Lydia Morrison: So there must be a gene somewhere for drive.

James Bevington: Who knows.

Lydia Morrison: So what do you see as some of the biggest challenges for space life science moving forward?

James Bevington: Yeah. Good question. Space in general really is people just have to decide that this is an important thing if it is. I mean I have people ask me all the time, "When are we going to go to Mars?" And it's a really simple response, "When we decide to pay to go to Mars." Yes, there's some technical challenges, but there's nothing that we can't overcome with a little bit of effort and funding. If you look at NASA's budget, it's a teeny tiny fraction of the federal budget. It's much, much smaller than people really think it is. If we just took the proposed military budget increase for this year, it's multiple times what NASA's entire budget is. So we could double or triple NASA's budget for what we're going to increase the military budget by this year and so it's a very simple decision. If we prioritize space, we can make space happen. And that's just across the board in terms of sending payloads up or sending missions to explore other planets.

Lydia Morrison: So during the presentation that I had the pleasure of sitting at today, where you talked about your HI-SEAS mission, you talked about sort of a worst case scenario of radiation poisoning and everybody having to move into a lava tunnel. Could you explain to our listeners what a lava tunnel is and why that might be an important aspect of living on Mars?

James Bevington: Yeah. So a lava tube is a geological formation that happens usually when you have a lava flow. And what happens is it basically tunnels through the lava and it leaves this tube structure. So they're called a lava tube. And because it's below ground and often accessible, like if the roof caves in you have what's called a skylight and so you can access the tubes, but they're these already formed structures. And so people are thinking about building habitats for future astronauts in these tube structures because it's underground. But if you've ever been in one, it's one of the coolest things you'll ever experience. It's like a tunnel, but it's not. And it's lava and you get to see how the lava was flowing like a liquid. So you have these drips that look like water drips, but they weren't, they were lava and you have kind of like bathtub rings almost, but it's with the lava as it was going down.

James Bevington: And sometimes the flows will come back up and go back down again. And so you can see all of this in the rocks. So you might have a smaller flow that comes back and doesn't fill the entire tube again and you'll see that on the walls. And so if you've ever been in one, it's one of the coolest features you'll ever walk around in. You really feel like you're on another planet when you do it here on earth and I can only imagine what it would feel like to be in a lava tube on the moon or Mars.

Lydia Morrison: So if you were in a lava tube on Mars or on the moon, is that where you envision people living in the future? If we were to settle Mars, would we be settling in lava tubes?

James Bevington: Potentially. It's not really clear exactly. I mean, we've never really been into a lava tube on Mars. We see pictures of the skylights from space. So we think that they're there, but they're really difficult to explore because as soon as you go down, you lose access to the radios. And so the way that you would control a Rover or something is really not possible to do so we haven't explored them at all. So we actually don't know how deep they are, how big they are and I think that's one of the things that you would probably need a human crew to be able to do when they were on the surface there.

Lydia Morrison: It sounds depressing to me to live in underground, in a tunnel. And so as you were showing the pictures, I was sort of thinking to myself, like in terms of planetary exploration, is this the best we can do? I understand the protection aspects of the lava tunnel, right? It's blocking radiation, it's blocking like high winds and maybe protecting you from other atmospheric elements or temperature elements. But I mean you talked about how excited you guys were to have six pieces of lettuce on your plate once a month. What's the reality of growing biological things? Having an agriculture system in a lava tunnel.

James Bevington: Yeah. I mean, I think it's all possible. It's just a matter of figuring out how to do it. So for us, we were using light generated from our solar panels. So you could easily have solar panels on the surface that would light the interior. They would produce light for plants, things like that. And I think if you had a large group, you could do something like build a greenhouse, like what you've got right here in the front of the NEB building. And that would actually provide a really nice space to live in that would kind of separate you from the fact that you live in a pretty dark, dull place. But I also, as you're describing living in a tube, I'm thinking back to January in Chicago and actually my life wasn't all that different from walking tube to tube between buildings and it was cold and dark outside. So in a lot of ways, maybe it's not so different.

Lydia Morrison: Fair enough, fair enough. And actually, I feel like it sounds a lot better to me once you introduce plants into the lava tunnel. So maybe I could wrap my head around it someday.

James Bevington: Yeah. And that was definitely something that we sort of observed. There was crew members who that was really important just to have a flower growing in the corner or some beans crawling up the side of the habitat or whatever, just to have some plants around, something green that changed the view a little bit was really important.

Lydia Morrison: Thanks so much for being here today, James.

James Bevington: Yeah. Thank you. It's been a really great week and a very inspiring week to be here at NEB and see how everything is done here. You definitely don't get the full impression when you go through the catalog or just order a different tubes of enzymes and whatnot, but to actually be here on campus and see how it's all done and the beautiful work environment here has been really inspiring.

Lydia Morrison: I'm so glad that you were able to join us and I'm so glad that you were able to share with us your really passionate curiosity for things of this planet and things not of this planet so thank you.

James Bevington: Thank you.

Lydia Morrison: Thanks for tuning in for this episode. As always check out the transcript of this podcast for helpful links to further resources and to learn more about what James is up to visit

Lydia Morrison: Tune in next time when we will begin a COVID-19 Researcher Spotlight Series. In the coming weeks, I will be interviewing a number of renowned researchers whose recent focus on COVID-19 and the coronavirus pandemic have yielded leaps in our scientific understanding, diagnostic testing capabilities and vaccine development strategies. So please join me and let's explore some of the most promising scientific advances in the age of COVID.

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About your host:


Lydia Morrison
NEB Marketing Communications Writer

Lydia is a scientist by training and a communicator by nature, and has a knack for asking one too many questions.

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