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When volunteering takes you out of this world

Mars landscape - 710x

Are we human, or are we…microbial? It might not be a thought you’ve ever deeply pondered but when considering the composition of cells inside the human body, and depending on who you listen to, it is thought fewer than 50% are bona fide human cells.


Emily Seto, NASA scientist 
 Emily Seto

It’s not a usual conversation opener but Emily Seto (Clinical Microbiology, 2016) is so incredibly passionate about microbiology that she has been recognised as the University’s Alumni Volunteer of the Year for her work as a student recruitment ambassador and careers speaker – just one of many of alumni and supporters celebrated with awards at our recent reception on campus.

“As a mentor it's been great just talking to students, having them ask me questions about what they're interested in doing and maybe I'll be able to help them evolve it into something. We run internships on campus here at NASA too, hosting 1,000-2,000 students every summer and it would be great if some Nottingham students end up here.”


Continuing the metaphorical conversation as to our very composition, Emily has taken a fascination with the subject, which was sparked by eating a dodgy burger at the age of four, to a whole new level working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). 

“I got into microbiology because I had this infection when I was younger. I ate a burger and developed e-coli, which then led to kidney failure!” But the “upside” as she describes it was a profound interest in why she became ill. This led to her studying a Public Health degree in her undergraduate years before finding her way from home in sunny California to gloomy Nottingham.

Celebrating our 2019 Volunteer Award winners

Our annual Volunteer Awards celebrate the inspiring alumni, staff and community volunteers who make the extraordinary possible for students and researchers alike. 


Microbiology 101

Just to explain the basics, microbiology is the study of all living organisms that are too small to be visible with the naked eye, or as Emily puts it: “The study of these tiny organisms that can either harm or help you.”

“If you get sick or weak that's when the bacteria can take over and infect you but they can also help you with your immune system or digestion. They're so important and affect everybody. It's something we're all connected with.”

Before explaining how she ended up inspecting the underside of spacecraft for extra-terrestrial microbes lets rewind to how she even began to consider travelling halfway across the globe for her Masters.

Realising your passion

“Having very strict parents the route was always doctor-medical school-pharmacy school. Everything was laid out for me, there wasn't really a different path to take. But I knew there were other ways of helping people. For example prevention, public health; getting the word out that there's diseases out there. I think it's something that set me apart from a lot of other students I guess.

“It took a really long time to convince my parents but they were supportive when I started to express my passion. They would come out to events which I took part in, teaching the local community about the environment and I think they became more accepting and knew that there was something there for me to do."

Her Masters in microbiology was the first time Emily had ever travelled outside of the US, and she’d applied to the course before even telling her parents, thinking she would never receive an offer.

Once she had adjusted to the gloom and the Nottingham accent Emily credits her degree in affirming the path chosen which focused on such a specific niche in the clinical field.

“When I graduated I wanted to continue in microbiology but I didn't know exactly what or where. Only when I got to NASA did I feel the satisfaction that I was contributing to something different and new. 

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“I was scrolling through Facebook and came across NASA's JPL page and it said "apply for a Planetary Protection position" and I had no idea what it meant so it took a lot of research! It was all about trying to tie in something you're currently doing with what they're looking for - no-one really has experience of astrobiology already.” 

And here’s the key for anyone thinking about their career, to take something you are passionate about and then see how it could fit somewhere you would love to work too.

“My line of work is to prevent forward contamination of planetary bodies; the spacecraft hardware are assembled in stringent cleanrooms where we perform inspections to ensure cleanliness.

“The organisms that are isolated in the cleanrooms are then identified and stored in a unique collection for further research studies (for example survival in Martian simulated environments).

“We also have a team of scientists that send samples into space to see if they can survive space conditions such as microgravity. We sent some fungi into space and in reaction to the effects of microgravity they produced 'novel peptides' which we discovered could potentially be used in antibiotics. It's really neat what they are able to do in different conditions.”

And the big question you all really want to know: “Who knows, maybe there is life on other planets? As a scientist it's like: ‘Yeah, I hope so!’"

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