From the nanoworld to outer space – Former nano student Florian Kehl’s search for life beyond Earth at NASA

 

In late April, the SNI hosted Dr. Florian Kehl, a Life Detection Technologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). In the lunch talk and the SNI lecture, he shared some fascinating stories about his work and career so far.

A chat with students
To begin with, Florian Kehl met with over 30 students from the nanoscience program for the lunch talk. He told them about fulfilling his childhood dream of working for NASA, where he now has a permanent job after three years as a postdoc. “The nanoscience degree, with its interdisciplinary approach, was an ideal foundation for my current job,” he says. “My knowledge of biology, chemistry and physics and my joined-up thinking often put me in a position to build bridges between scientists and engineers.” 

He also received a boost from the industrial experience he gained during a placement at CSEM, and writing his master’s thesis on microrocket technology at the University of California in Berkeley. 

“Diversification is important in education,” he told his audience. Kehl himself has always abided by this principle: while writing his doctoral dissertation on the development of a biochemical analysis device, alongside his research at ETH Zurich he also worked at CSEM and the company Optics Balzer, where he picked up the electronics skills that are now second nature to him: at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, he develops and builds devices able to search for signs of life in our solar system.

 

A journey into space
In the early evening, in an event open to the public, Kehl took his audience on a research expedition into space. With the aid of some spectacular images, he vividly explained how life might have evolved on Mars or some of the moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn. Whether or not this has actually happened, or what these life forms might look like, remains unknown.

In any case, amino or carboxylic acids and complex biomolecules would be indicators of life that could have developed in water beneath massive ice sheets. “Whereas amino and carboxylic acids have been found on meteorites in the past, the frequency of the different acids varies according to whether they are of biotic or abiotic origin,” he explains. “The handedness (chirality) of amino acids also depends on whether or not they were produced by living beings.” In nature, left-handed amino acids are much more common than right-handed ones. However, among amino acids created by abiotic process, the distribution is evenly balanced.

The instruments developed by Kehl are designed to detect the presence of biological molecules in the harsh conditions of space. However, before that can happen, the devices must be tested here on Earth. The audience of over 250 was treated to a memorable demonstration of how Kehl tests his instruments under extreme climate conditions in Chile’s Atacama desert or the Arctic.

A fascination for diversity
For Kehl, the most exciting thing about his work is the variety it offers. “No two days are the same. Like the nanosciences program, it is extremely interdisciplinary and varied. I don’t just develop instruments with electronics and software – I also have to understand the underlying biology and chemistry,” Kehl explains in an interview. 

His reputation has even made it as far as Hollywood – he was hired as a “rocketry consultant” by the producers of the CBS television series “Strange Angels”, which tells the bizarre life story of Jack Parson, one of the founders of Jet Propulsion Laboratories where Florian now works.

Even as a small boy, Kehl was already giving presentations on Mars robots. Today, he is involved in equipping them to successfully complete their mission. The first step on the road to this fascinating job was a nanoscience degree at the University of Basel, and it is great to hear that he would return to Basel to study nanoscience again in a heartbeat.

Watch an interview with Florian Kehl in which he talks about what he likes most about his job at NASA, how his studies helped prepare him for what he does, and his favorite part of studying nanoscience in Basel (only in German).

Heute bei der NASA – gestern Nanostudent