In 2018, Pitt student Emily Klonicki was an intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) trying to make sure “freeloader” bacteria didn’t make it to Mars. Today, she’s a full-time NASA planetary protection engineer (PPE) working on the Perseverance rover project and pushing the boundaries of science and tech. Read on to see how her microbiology and civil and environmental engineering background helped her get there.
How does your background in microbiology and environmental engineering make you uniquely suited to solve problems at JPL?
I routinely work at the intersection of both science and engineering, which allows me to draw from my interdisciplinary background. As a planetary protection engineer, I interface with engineers to ensure hardware meets specific cleanliness requirements. In addition, I am a science systems engineer for the Europa Lander, a concept for a potential future mission, as well as a subsurface ocean access project where I focus on developing sampling and payload instrumentation requirements.
How does it feel to be a real-life full-time NASA employee right now? Did you ever think you’d be here?
There is nothing more exciting than searching for the unknown and there is so much yet to be discovered beyond Earth. Being a part of an institution that continuously pushes the boundaries both scientifically and technologically has been transformative for me. I did not ever imagine I would be working in the role I am today. I had applied to my first internship with JPL only because I thought it was an exciting opportunity and never expected I would get the position, let alone build a career there.
Are you working from home during the pandemic? What’s the vibe been at work leading up to the Perseverance rover landing on Feb. 18 and in the days after?
I work both from home and at JPL. I had approval to be on campus to complete a research task for a SARS-CoV-2 biosensor lab in collaboration with Purdue University. Additionally, I am on campus to sample Europa Clipper hardware for bacterial spores and archive any isolates as part of my PPE role. (The clipper is an orbiter of Jupiter that will fly by its moon Europa.) Everyone had been eagerly awaiting the landing of Mars Perseverance, which I think the feeling was more elevated given that the team was able to successfully work through challenging circumstances. The excitement has been constant since the landing as the images and videos continue to blow us away. There are a lot of firsts on this mission, including Ingenuity test flights, that we have to look forward to along with the science operations that will search for ancient biosignatures.
Where were you when the rover touched down? What was it like watching and listening to it?
I was at home with my dog and fiance. It was an incredibly moving moment as it was the first mission I worked on and given all that has happened this past year, it embodied its name as the team had to persevere through all of the challenges to bring the rover safely to the surface of Mars. It has been incredible to see all the interest and enthusiasm it has brought to the world. I also have re-watched the video over a hundred times and it still gives me chills.
Your mentor at Pitt, David Sanchez, is still working with you and NASA on a project to evaluate new materials to be used in space for bioelectrochemical applications. What’s it like to have a mentor be your colleague?
It has been an absolute pleasure to continue working with Dr. Sanchez. I never lost my passion for bioelectrochemical systems, and being able to conduct similar research with colleagues at JPL and my alma mater is amazing. I still consider him as a mentor even though we are now colleagues and appreciate all of the career guidance he has given me over many years.
Would you go to Mars if you could? Do you think you’ll get to?
I am open to the idea, however, there are a lot of logistics that still need worked through prior to signing up for that type of opportunity. I think I would be more open to going to the International Space Station to run microgravity experiments.