Meet our Team
JPL's BPP Group includes more than 15 scientists, engineers, and technicians, who are researchers and flight project implementation specialists. To support research and flight implementation tasks, the group supplements the workforce throughout the year with postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students. Collectively, the group has extensive expertise in planetary protection implementation, research and technology development, microbiology, molecular biology, genetics, classical and molecular microbial taxonomy, physics, analytical chemistry, biochemistry, chemical engineering, probability analysis, research design, biosensor technology, biomedical engineering, and space instrument engineering.
Heidi Aronson | Planetary Protection Engineer
Heidi is a recent graduate of Occidental College, where she studied marine biology and cellular and molecular biology. At Occidental, she spent two years researching the microbiome of a deep-sea, bone-eating snail. Heidi was an intern and Caltech SURF student with the Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group from 2013-2016. She worked on various projects including preparation of spore coupons for the Biofilm Organisms Surfing Space (BOSS) project and implementation of MALDI-TOF MS for bacterial archiving. As a Planetary Protection Engineer, Heidi will assist with mission implementation for Mars 2020.
James “Nick” Benardini III, PhD | Group Supervisor
Dr. J. Nick Benardini has conducted research in the field of in environmental microbiology studying extreme environments for the past 13 years. He has participated in both applied research and field studies in conducting molecular and traditional microbiological community analysis. He has actively participated in the implementation teams for the Mars Exploration Rovers, Mars Science Laboratory, InSight 2016 and Mars 2020 Missions. Specially, he has experience in microbial sample collection (air, water, surface), concentration, molecular separation, nucleic acid based approaches (DNA extraction, PCR, whole genome amplification approaches for low biomass, and custom DNA-microarray), and protein based approaches (ESI-MS/MS). He has been instrumental in sampling the Mars 2020, InSight, Mars Science Laboratory, JUNO, Mars Exploration Rovers, International Space Station’s ground support loop (SSPF, KSC), and leading the sampling and laboratory support team for the Mars Science Laboratory. He has served as the lead for the InSight 2016 and Mars 2020 missions.
Fei Chen | Scientist
Fei Chen received a B.S. in Biochemistry from Beijing University in China and a Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences from University of Southern California. She was a senior research fellow at California Institute of Technology before she joined the Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Her current projects include developing aseptic assembly techniques and sterilization capabilities for future Mars and Europa missions; and studying the survival and reproduction of microbes at low water activity with salts relevant to Mars and icy satellites. She is also on the Planetary Protection implementation team for the M2020 Mission.
Zachary S. Dean | Planetary Protection Engineer
Zach is an interdisciplinary, molecular biology-oriented biomedical engineering Ph.D. who spent five years developing nucleic acid probes to detect RNAs (miRNA/mRNA) inside living cells in real time. He also developed portable electromechanical infusion pumps for Medipacs, Inc., refined 3D cell culture assays, investigated smooth muscle cell migration mechanisms, fabricated portable lab-on-a-chip field testing devices, and constructed a high-speed photography system. He also has years of community service with honors organizations Tau Beta Pi and Alpha Epsilon Delta in addition to experience as a mentor for Tucson’s Bit Buckets FIRST Robotics Competition team. The results of his research appear in more than eleven peer-reviewed publications, two books, and more than a dozen scientific presentations. After a year of cell transporter research with the Dr. Stephen H. Wright Lab at the Univeristy of Arizona, Zach joined NASA JPL’s Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group.
Raymond Ellyin | Planetary Protection Engineer
After earning four different national scholar high honors awards in Physics, Calculus, Chemistry, and Physical Education, Raymond was accepted to Berkley and UCLA with a full academic scholarship. He earned his bachelors degree in physics and mathematics from UCLA in 2002. He went on to earn two Masters Degrees in Biomedical Engineering and Decision Analysis both from UCLA. Mr. Ellyin has been at JPL for the last 15 years initially working in Division 38 and Office 150 as an APT/APX fascilitating tasks such as instrument integration, hardware design, and proposal work in response to NASA announcements of opportunity. He is currently a member of the Planetary Protection Group working on the M2020 Planetary Protection Equipment List and the Insight Launch Recontamination Plan within Division 35. Mr. Ellyin will soon be completing his doctoral degree in Engineering and Technology Management.
Ryan Hendrickson | Planetary Protection Engineer
Ryan received his Bachelor’s Degree is Microbiology from California Polytechnic University San Luis Obispo in 2011 and his Masters in Science Education at California State University in 2014. He is currently involved on the Planetary Protection implementation team for both the Insight and M2020 Missions.
Melissa A. Jones | Manager
Dr. Jones obtained her B.S. in Chemistry from Loras College in 2002. Her thesis research focused on simulating surface features on asteroids using regolith fludization techniques on NASA’s microgravity plane. She went on to pursue her Ph.D (2006) at the University of Arkansas where her graduate work focused on studying chemical and physical surface processes on asteroids as well as designing and environmentally testing a sample collector for a proposed near-Earth asteroid sample return mission, which was a collaboration with JPL. Her multipdisciplanary dissertation had a strong science and engineering interface which she ultimately decided to pursue as a career path. Dr. Jones started her career at JPL in 2006 where she spent the first 7 years pursuing opportunities to learn systems engineering. In 2013, she become the Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group Supervisor, a group where both science and engineering have to meet to get the job done correctly.
Gayane Anahid Kazarians | Scientist
Gayane received her Bachelors Degree in Microbiology from the University of California, at Los Angeles, (UCLA), in 1984. Her experience as a part-time employee during her student years paid off when upon her completion of her degree, she was offered a position within what was known then as JPL’s Space Biological Sciences Group. Currently, she is actively involved with the Planetary Protection Group, particularly as a team member for both the InSight and Mars 2020 Missions.
Laura Newlin | Planetary Protection Engineer
Laura Newlin received a B.S. in Engineering from Harvey Mudd College and an M.S. in Applied Mathematics from Claremont Graduate School, both in Claremont, California. She joined JPL 30 years performing stochastic modeling of Space Shuttle Main Engine components. She is currently a Senior Engineer with the Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group. Her 16 years of experience as a planetary protection engineer includes support to Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars Polar Lander, Mars Exploration Rover, Mars Science Laboratory, Phoenix, Juno, Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Jupiter Europa Orbiter, InSight, Mars 2020, MarCO, the Europa mission, and numerous spacecraft and instrument proposal teams.
Wayne Schubert | Scientist
Wayne received B.S. and M.S. degrees in Biology from the California State University, Northridge in 1974 and 1979 respectively. He joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1974 and is currently a research scientist in the Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group. He has been actively involved with the implementation of Planetary Protection for current and previous space missions, including Mars Science Laboratory, Phoenix, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Exploration Rovers and Mars Pathfinder. He actively participates in research involving sterilization, cleaning, and validation of spacecraft hardware and is doing applied research on evaluating microbes embedded in solid materials. Recent research activities include investigations into dry heat microbial reduction, a task that evaluates bacterial spore inactivation at elevated temperatures. Wayne also manages an archive task that preserves and characterizes microbes isolated from spacecraft as they are assembled.
Arman Seuylemezian | Scientist
Arman has completed two internships with the Biotechnology and Planetary Protection group, employed as an academic part time, and currently as a staff scientist has taken roles in the Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group, characterizing, identifying, and archiving bacterial isolates from spacecraft associated surfaces and cleanroom environments. He has also supported flight project implementation. He is currently working towards a master of science degree in bioinformatics from Johns Hopkins Univerisity. He is interested in applying new and emerging computational biology systems and technologies to better assess microbial bioburden, present on spacecraft associated surfaces.
Timothy Brian Shirey | Planetary Protection Engineer
Brian Shirey is a Planetary Protection Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Prior to joining the JPL Biotechnology and Planetary Protection group, Brian received his Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Alabama, and was subsequently awarded a prestigious Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Mathmatics postdoctoral fellowship from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, GA. Brian has an established and diverse research background within the fields of applied and environmental microbiology, with expertise in both laboratory and field investigations. As an enthusiastic collaborator, Brian has partnered with collegues representing both national and international organizations including NASA, CDC, FDA, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Brian’s expertise spans the range from genomics and bioinformatics, to microbial sterilization and traditional microbiology.
Kristina Vaikovna Stott | Planetary Protection Engineer
Kristina Stott graduated from California State University Northridge with a B.S. in Cell and Molecular Biology (2010) and an M.S. in Microbiology (2012). Her studies involved cell cycle regulation during fatty acid starvation in Caulobacter crescentus. While working at One Lambda, she gained extensive knowledge and laboratory experience in immunology and transplant diagnostics. She joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Planetary Protection group in July 2016. She is currently involved with the planetary protection implementation team for the proposed M2020 mission. She is also working on Break the Chain projects which address backward contamination of the Earth for future sample return missions.
Moogega Stricker | Scientist
Moogega received her Bachelors Degree in Physics from Hampton University in 2006. She successively enrolled in Drexel University where she received her Masters and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering with a concentration in thermal fluid sciences. Her dissertation studies involved non-equilibrium plasma sterilization of spacecraft materials so it was a logical transition to work for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Planetary Protection Group. Her current projects include developing plasma sterilization methodologies and additional sterilization capabilities for future mission use. She is also involved on the Planetary Protection team for both the Insight and M2020 Missions.
Parag A Vaishampayan | Scientist
DAs a staff scientist, Parag manages a multifunctional, multidisciplinary, biotechnology–based laboratory. He has applied his scientific expertise, bioinformatics knowledge and research experience over 15 years to decipher the microbial ecology of diverse and extreme environmental niches encompassing spacecraft assembly clean rooms, ocean, stratospheric air samples, high altitude caves, hydrothermal vents and human gut to name a few. He was instrumental in teaming up with engineers at JPL, industry partners and vendors for developing a sampling and analysis technology for low-biomass environments. His research findings will allow NASA to implement efficient microbial decontamination and sterilization techniques during future spacecraft assembly processes. He is the key bioinformatician of the planetary protection group at JPL. He has successfully managed several multi-institutional research projects as a Principal Investigator and/or Co-Investigator. The results of his research have appeared in more than 40 peer-reviewed publications, book chapters and several (more than 50) presentations.
Kasthuri Venkateswaran | Scientist
Dr. Kasthuri Venkateswaran (Venkat) is the Senior Research Scientist at JPL and supports the Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group. His 39+ years of research encompasses marine, food, and environmental microbiology. He has applied his research in molecular microbial analysis to better understand the ecological aspects of microbes, while conducting field studies in several extreme environments such as deep sea (2,500 m), spacecraft missions (Mars Exploration Rovers), assembly facility clean rooms, and the space environment in Earth orbit (ISS). Also, he provides expertise for non-NASA programs such as commercial agencies (Boeing – airline cabin air measurement) and medical industries (tissue and organ transplants processing). The bioinformatics databases generated by Venkat’s team are extremely useful in the development of biosensors which will provide information about the spacecraft surfaces and enclosed habitats in an attempt to determine forward contamination as well as develop countermeasures (advance cleaning and sterilization technologies) to control the problematic microbial species