My Office: Emily Seto

We’re taking you behind-the-scenes in our new series, My Office, exploring the working spaces of alumni around the world to give you the inside view into what careers are really like – and hopefully provide some inspiration along the way! In the second of our series, we meet Emily Seto (Clinical Microbiology, 2016), a Planetary Protection Engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


Hi Emily! So tell us, what’s your job now and where’s your ‘office’?

Currently, I am a Planetary Protection Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena California. While searching for life on the surface of a solar system body (via life-detection instruments) and in future samples returned to Earth, contamination could result in the “false-positive” indication of life. My job is to prevent the contamination of celestial bodies by confirming that spacecraft launched from Earth are clean. My office is wherever my work takes me - I am currently at the Kennedy Space Center supporting the Mars2020 launch!

Was there one career-defining moment which enabled you to work in this office?

During my master’s course at the University of Nottingham, I had the option of picking a research module. I decided to challenge myself and choose a topic that I was most unfamiliar with. Little did I know I would become a spore expert!

What sort of work are you currently doing to support the Mars Mission – and what has it been like to work on such a ground-breaking mission?

"The spacecraft and cleanroom habitats are harsh environments with low nutrient availability, dominated by hardy microorganisms that have survived desiccation and removal by cleaning. I have been isolating such microbes from the cleanroom and providing microbial identifications that have been used to understand and to control contamination sources.

"Understanding the source of contamination, whether from human or environmental-associated microorganisms, provides engineers the option of implementing changes to their procedures. The most exciting part is being able to study these organisms and utilize them for future research projects. Also, sampling spacecraft that will be heading to Mars is pretty exciting too."

Check out Emily's Instagram takeover as the Mars2020 launch gets underway!

What would you say are the key characteristics of someone who does your job?

"Creative, curious, and patient."

What’s the one thing about your office which most love or hate?

“Love: Tackling something new every day and problem solving."

"Hate: All the paperwork that comes with managing projects."

And is there anything you could not live without in your office?

"I cannot live without “Google”- there are so many unknowns and challenges that I have to solve on a daily basis and that requires hours of research!"

What’s been the best moment working in your office?

"I was in the middle of eating lunch when I received a phone call from NASA headquarters and they had called to congratulate me for winning a competitive NASA research grant. Not only was I competing with senior experts in my group, but also with other astrobiology researchers from different NASA centers.

"Working in a competitive space with many established researchers has been extremely intimidating. However this accomplishment proved that my hard work and persistence has paid off!"

And the toughest?

“A tough day would be when experiments are not going as planned. This would delay scheduling and ultimately impact the flight project work. To mitigate this, I always plan ahead to ensure that there is enough time or buffer to work towards a solution."

Do you have one piece of advice for someone who wants to work in an office like yours?

"Stay humble and be ready to learn something new every day. At JPL, we are usually assigned to multiple projects and each project has a set of expectations. Being able to adapt is the key to success!"

And finally, how do you take your tea?

"I’d prefer a green smoothie!"

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