The journey of Aubrie O’Rourke‘s career is a testament to the power of passion, adaptability, and a thirst for exploration. From the serene landscapes of California to the vibrant cultures of Saudi Arabia, her path has been one of diverse experiences that ultimately led her to the forefront of space science at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Born with a fascination for art, nature, and science, O’Rourke’s childhood near Yosemite National Park in California’s Central Valley gave her an early appreciation for the world’s wonders. After completing her bachelor’s degree in general biology from the University of California San Diego (UCSD), she embarked on a journey that would take her across continents and into space exploration.
Her academic journey continued with a master’s in quantitative and systems biology from the University of California, Merced. However, her year-long vacation to Hawaii added a unique dimension to her skills. During this time, O’Rourke took to the skies, learning to fly small aircraft, a pursuit that echoed her adventurous spirit.
Determined to expand her horizons further, O’Rourke’s journey led her to Saudi Arabia, where she pursued a doctorate in marine biology at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. This period was not only marked by her academic pursuits but also by her cultural immersion. O’Rourke’s initiative in founding a horse-riding club, “Kingdom Equestrians,” showcased her commitment to community service and fitness, offering riding lessons to women, children, and men alike.
Reflecting on her time in Saudi Arabia, O’Rourke shared, “It was incredibly eye-opening to be able to live outside the States and experience a completely different culture.” This adaptability and openness to new experiences would become pivotal in her later endeavors.
Returning to California, O’Rourke balanced her scientific research on infectious disease-causing bacteria with teaching roles at institutions like UCSD and Mesa Community College. During this period, she was drawn into the orbit of NASA, as the agency selected her postdoctoral fellowship proposal. This marked the launch of her career at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in June 2020.
As a project scientist within the Exploration Research and Technology Programs, O’Rourke’s work revolves around space crop production – a technology to revolutionize long-duration space missions by providing astronauts with fresh, homegrown food. Her role encompasses fundamental and application-based science, including conducting her research and supporting fellow principal investigators engaged in experiments bound for the International Space Station.
O’Rourke’s expertise extends beyond the confines of a typical laboratory. She leads the Polaris Project, a venture funded by NASA’s Mars Campaign Office, which aims to develop an automated genomic sequencer for monitoring crucial microbes in space environments. This innovative device promises insights into the effects of space conditions on these microorganisms, enhancing our understanding of potential challenges for future off-planet water and food systems.
Amidst her groundbreaking scientific pursuits, O’Rourke remains firm in her commitment to mentoring. Drawing from the techniques of her mentors, she strives to make science engaging and accessible, particularly for those who may doubt their capabilities. Her philosophy revolves around the idea that education can transform lives, and she tirelessly works to instill this belief in her interactions with professionals and students alike.
Aubrie O’Rourke’s journey from California to Florida, spanning continents and disciplines, showcases the immense possibilities of pursuing one’s passions with unwavering determination. As she continues to pioneer space crop production and contribute to our understanding of the cosmos, her story inspires aspiring scientists and adventurers across the globe.
Image provided by NASA