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This profile was last updated on 10/15/13  and contains information from public web pages and contributions from the ZoomInfo community.

Dr. Catharine Cassie Conley

Wrong Dr. Catharine Cassie Conley?

Planetary Protection Officer

Local Address: Washington, United States

Employment History

  • Biologist


  • doctorate , plant biology
    Cornell University
118 Total References
Web References
SpinCam: Pancake Recipe for Life :: Astrobiology Magazine :: Search for Life in the Universe, 28 Feb 2006 [cached]
The chance to explore such radical modifications led Principal Investigator, Catharine Conley, a biologist at NASA Ames, to flatten some already flat-worms (or nematodes).
According to Conley, humans die after one minute at 10 G because the blood gets centrifuged from the head.But the worms, with no circulatory system and a sturdy constitution, don't have that problem.In fact, these worms can naturally withstand 1,000,000 G or a force-equivalent of over a million-times their terrestrial weight.
To examine the worms as they spin, scientists are using a video system designed and constructed by students at Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, Calif.
"By looking at what changes occur in the worms when they transition from high-G forces to normal gravity, we think we can predict what will happen to them when they experience near weightlessness during space flight," said Conley."In the future, we want to fly the worms in space, subjecting them to microgravity to see if our predictions are correct."Microgravity (one-million times less than terrestrial levels) is close to 'zero gravity.'
"Radiation levels in space are much higher than they are on the Earth's surface," Conley said."We know that elevated radiation increases the mutation rate of living things.Because these worms reproduce every four days, we can look quickly at many worm generations in space to see how radiation and microgravity may cause changes later," she explained.
"Worms have already flown aboard the space shuttle, and it was found that they went through several generations without gross structural changes to their bodies," Conley said.
"Should our hypothesis prove correct, it will validate Caenorhabditis elegans [nemotode] as an extremely useful and cost-effective model organism for studying responses to space flight at the molecular, genetic and whole-organism levels," Conley said.
When Conley was planning her current experiments that utilize a smaller, desktop centrifuge, she realized she would need a camera no bigger than an ice cube that could broadcast signals from the spinning apparatus to a TV monitor and recorder in real time.So she turned to the Student Engineering Clinic at Harvey Mudd College to produce the camera system.
"During spinning there are changes in the worms' gene expression that seem to help them compensate for the increased apparent gravity, allowing them to survive," Conley said.
Dr. Conley's Research
Dimitar Sasselov and Catharine ..., 30 June 2013 [cached]
Dimitar Sasselov and Catharine Conley on life beyond Earth
On Space Shuttle Columbia's final mission, it had onboard an experiment coordinated by Catherine Conley, a biologist with NASA's Ames Research Center, now the agency's planetary protection officer. After the shuttle was destroyed reentering the Earth's atmosphere, the nematode cultures contained in the experiment were recovered still alive. What the accident demonstrated is that not only can microbial life survive in space; it can survive entry into the Earth's atmosphere.
Now evidence indicates that billions of years ago, Mars had water and atmospheric conditions that could, theoretically, have supported life. Meteor strikes have meanwhile caused serial ejections of material from Earth to Mars and from Mars to Earth, meaning it's possible (possible) that microbial life actually originated on Mars, which subsequently became inhospitable to it, and landed from there on Earth. If we do find microbial life on Mars, then, Conley said, "... it could look like us.
It is not responsible for us ..., 28 Sept 2012 [cached]
It is not responsible for us not to follow our own rules," reported NASA Planetary Protection Officer Catharine Conley. Untitled NASA image:126755:0::0 On Nov. 1, after learning that the drill bit box had been opened, Conley said she had the mission reclassified to one in which Curiosity could touch the surface of Mars "as long as there is no ice or water." Who would have known?
Cassie Conley, planetary ..., 17 Feb 2011 [cached]
Cassie Conley, planetary protection officer, NASA Headquarters
Catharine "Cassie" Conley has the coolest ..., 19 Oct 2012 [cached]
Catharine "Cassie" Conley has the coolest job title at NASA: She's the agency's planetary protection officer. (The best title used to be "director of the universe," but a reconfiguration a few years back eliminated that job description, she says.)
Since 2006, Conley (right) has been charged with preventing Earth from being overrun by extraterrestrial microbes or other contaminants brought back by NASA explorers. She also makes sure spacecraft don't carry stowaways that could spread to other planets or later be mistaken for E.T. "I'm a policeman, basically," she says.
Only one other person in the world - her counterpart at the European Space Agency - has full-time responsibility for guarding planets, moons and other celestial bodies from contamination. "It's unfortunately a very small police force," Conley says.
access Enlarge Catharine "Cassie" Conley is NASA's planetary protection officer. NASA
But it's a job she was practically born to do. Conley's father was a mathematician who consulted with NASA to plot the trajectory of the Apollo missions to the moon. Her mother was a geneticist. "In kindergarten when they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, 'genetic engineer,'" she remembers.
Eventually she became a cell biologist, but one with more broad-ranging credentials than usual. In college, Conley realized that space exploration is an international endeavor and added a major in language translation (Russian and French) to her science courses. Her combined background has helped prepare her to deal with international bureaucracy and to understand both the engineering challenges of missions and the biology of organisms she's trying to keep from colonizing other planets.
Before her current job, Conley worked at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. She and her colleagues sent tiny, transparent nematode worms into orbit aboard the space shuttle Columbia on its last mission in 2003. Surprisingly, the worms survived when the shuttle disintegrated and burned up on reentry, teaching Conley and NASA just how resilient life can be and reinforcing the need for planetary protection.
Keeping spacecraft from contaminating other planets not only ensures that Earth organisms aren't later mistaken for Martian life, it's also necessary to make sure that Earthlings - big or microscopic - don't become invasive or spread disease across the solar system, Conley says. She takes an object lesson from the European colonization of the New World, in which native populations were decimated by diseases carried by explorers. "That is exactly what we'd like to avoid," she says.
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