Some Nerd Girl

Some Like It Nerdy



I Hunt Aliens for a Living

When people find out that I’m an astrobiologist – that is, my work concerns the search for life on other planets, amongst other things- invariably, the first question is, “Have you found any yet?”

So, to start, I’d like to say for the record, that no, I haven’t (believe me, you would have heard about it if I had). But while that goal remains unattained, astrobiologists have still made astounding discoveries about life in the universe – and the finding of truly alien life may not be that far off.

I think the reason people find my field of research so fascinating is because it tackles some very foundational questions. How did life originate? Under what conditions can it survive? Where else might we find it? And what might it look like when we do? Because of the scale of these questions, astrobiology isn’t really a single field, per se – but rather a collections of many different disciplines (including, but not limited to, astronomy, geology, chemistry, biology, and planetary science), all trying to come up with answers.

Strap in for a good ol’ fashion existential crisis!

In order to determine the likelihood of finding life elsewhere in the universe, we first must know how easy or difficult it is for life to emerge in the first place. This is the realm of the prebiotic chemists, who focus on how living systems can develop from simple chemistry (sometimes poetically referred to as abiogenesis). There are different theories as to how this happened – some scientists suggest that RNA, a molecule similar to DNA that has the capability to reproduce itself may have been the forerunner to life as we know it; others suggest that metabolic processes, or the creation of simple bubble-like “protocells” set the stage for life. It should be noted that these theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive – it has been suggested that life may have originated independently multiple times on Earth, competed and merged with each other, and finally gave rise to the biosphere we know today.


I should note that a general assumption about life in the universe is that it’ll most likely be similar to us, biochemically speaking. The foundations of Earth biochemistry are carbon (due to the fact that it can easily form complex molecules) and water (which is particularly good at dissolving molecules, and appears to be abundant through the universe). The latter was considered so key to life as we know it that, for a period of time, the motto of NASA’s astrobiology program was “Follow the Water” (this is also why there’s so much buzz whenever NASA announces the detection of liquid water elsewhere in our solar system). With that said, more exotic biochemistries – using silicon instead of carbon, for example, or using ammonia or methane instead of water – have also been proposed.

In addition to how life comes into being, we also must know how many places are available for it to live. One approach to this question is studying the abundance of habitable planets in the universe. Exoplanets – planets found around stars other than our sun- have been discovered to be staggeringly common. The Kepler space telescope mission, in particular, has found dozens of potentially Earth-like worlds, many located in the “Goldilocks zone” of their main star (where the temperature is “just right” for liquid water to exist on the surface).


We don’t know necessarily know if these planets are actually inhabitable or not (though we hope to answer that with future missions, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite; I’m particularly fond of the latter since it shares my name), but these early findings are certainly promising.

Another angle on the question of habitability is studying the conditions on which life can survive – especially in environments that seem extreme and inhospitable to us. As it turns out, life is extraordinarily hardy, with organisms, known as extremophiles, making their homes in even incredibly harsh surroundings. From microbes living in the superheated water of hydrothermal systems to radiation-eating fungi discovered in the ruins of Chernobyl , it appears that life is amazingly adaptable. While most extremophiles are microbes, there are some more complex organisms that hold this distinction as well – my particular favorite being the iceworm, a glacier-dwelling invertebrate that is so well adapted to the cold that it will literally melt if its temperature is raised too high above freezing.


So, having established how life might originate and where it might survive, the next question is how might we detect it? This brings us to one of the primary areas of research in astrobiology – the identification and detection of biosignatures. Biosignatures are simply the chemical and physical traces left by living systems on their environment. A classic example is the presence of both methane and oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere – since methane isn’t chemically stable in those conditions, some process must actively be producing it (incidentally, methane isn’t stable on Mars, either – which is why there was such excitement when very low levels of it were detected by the Curiosity mission). Biosignatures can also include microfossils or other geological traces left by microbes, and spectral lines in the light reflected off a planet indicating the presence of chlorophyll.

I am still waiting for my engineering counterparts to hook me up with one of these.

Related to biosignatures is probably the most famous aspect of astrobiology – the search for technosignatures. As the name suggests, these are indicators of the presence of a technological civilization. SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is the most well known effort to locate signs of an advanced aliens, but it is not the only one- there also astrobiologists keeping their eyes peeled for everything from signs of astroengineering (constructions the size of stars) to potentially looking for the lights of alien cities in the spectral signatures of planets. A find of this sort is the holy grail of astrobiology – after all, as exciting as an alien microbe might be, we’rd really prefer something we could talk to.   It’s worth noting, though, it is statistically unlikely that any other alien civilization is at the same technology level as us, and may be much further advanced on the Kardashev scale, so they may not be as interested in what we have to say.

Are we alone? Where did we come from? These are just some of the questions astrobiologists hope to answer. And, even better, you can help the astrobiology community answer them, too! The field has been a pioneer in the use of citizen science – recruiting assistance from everyday people.   Projects include SETI@Home (a screensaver that uses your computer’s idle processing power to search for signals in SETI radio data) and Planet Hunters (a website where users can help detect planets around other stars).

Be part of the search!

So, if you find the search for life in the universe as thrilling and fascinating as I do, then feel free to join in the fun! Who knows- you might just find help us find something.

And I’d finally have a good answer for “Have you found any yet?”


Tessa is a 28 year old PhD student, and perhaps the world’s only queer trans astrobiologist. A nerd going way back, her interests include science fiction, space exploration, sustainability, science communication, and feminism and gender. Her hobbies also include horseback riding, playing the flute, social dancing, knitting, and occasional attempts at writing fiction. She currently resides in Tempe, AZ with her even nerdier fiancee and a mastiff mix who thinks he’s a lapdog. She tweets occasionally @spacermase.

Our Patron Saint: Ellen Ripley

It’s official, Alien 5 is happening. The fifth movie in the Alien series, starring Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, has been confirmed by director Neill Blomkamp. As we wait for this new addition to one of the greatest science fiction movie series of all time, I thought it only appropriate to reflect on what truly made this series stand out: its protagonist. The intelligent, determined and heroic Ellen Ripley was a character that broke the mold and, to this day, stands out as one of the greatest female film protagonists of all time.

She is serious, and she will set you on fire if she has to.
She is serious, and she will set you on fire if she has to.

Ripley stands out as a character who isn’t just in conflict with the inhuman enemy, but also with the people around her. In the first film, she is forced to stand up for herself as crew-mates Ash (who has sinister intentions) and Dallas make decisions that jeopardize her and the crew’s safety. When Ash breaks quarantine rules, Ripley does not just let it slide, but confronts him and lets him know in no uncertain terms that she is his superior officer and that he made a big mistake in going against her orders. It comes up again later in the movie when Ash is revealed as a traitor and Ripley has to defend herself and the crew against him in addition to the aliens.

If only these poor bastards had listened to Ripley from the start!
If only these poor bastards had listened to Ripley from the start!

In the second film, Ripley is under fire by her bosses, as they don’t believe her retelling of the horrifying events that led to the death of Nostromo’s crew. Burke, her false friend, encourages her to go along with what the higher ups are saying, but she never shows any signs of backing down and outright insults her superiors when they are attempting to say that she imagined the ordeal. “Did IQ’s drop sharply while I was away?” One cannot help but want to cheer for her, although we know she’s going to pay for the quip.

You tell ’em, Ripley!

Later, she promises the weaselly Burke that he will pay for his deceptions, and when he tells her he had thought she would understand and expected more from her, she tells him that she is happy to disappoint him and fully intends to go through on her promise to pin him to the wall.

Do people never learn to not mess with this lady?
Do people never learn to not mess with this lady?

In the third movie this conflict is taken to its logical extreme, when Ripley is forced to live in a penal colony full of woman-hating rapists and murderers. She has few friends in the colony, as most of the people there either want to assault her or leave her for dead.“You don’t want to know me, lady,” one man tells her, “I’m a murderer and rapist of women.” She in turn muses that if that’s the case, she must make him very nervous. Ripley was one of the highest ranking officers of the ship Nostromo, and she does not take any crap from anyone, human or not.

This was probably more pleasant than dealing with those jerks.
This was probably more pleasant than dealing with those jerks.

Finally, all you really need to know about Alien: Resurrection is that this happened –

Fun fact: this is completely unedited. She made that shot on the first try.
Fun fact: this is completely unedited. She made that shot on the first try.

Sure, everyone knows that Ripley is a total badass. Some of her feats include blasting an alien out of the airlock,

…getting into what is basically a robotic exoskeleton and going mano-a-mano with the mother alien,

…setting an alien nest on fire with a flamethrower,



…saving a group of marines (driving right through a sheet of metal to do so),


and committing suicide by fire so that the alien she’s carrying will die with her.

Maintaining a healthy level of badassery the entire time.


She’s an indisputable action star, but it isn’t just her feats of strength in battle that make her character so memorable, it’s as much her softer actions that give us a glimpse into her personality and heart.

The biggest example of this would be her tender interactions with other characters. It is established early on in the sequel that Ripley had a daughter who grew old and died while Ripley spent fifty seven years in hypersleep. Ripley, who hadn’t shed a tear throughout any of her near death experiences or her violent nightmares, breaks down when she learns of her daughter’s death. “I promised her I’d be home for her birthday,” she says through her tears, “Her eleventh birthday.”


Later on in the sequel Ripley meets Newt, a little girl whose entire community was slaughtered by the aliens. When Ripley sees Newt, she’s a filthy, mute little girl with dirty hair and a mess on her face. Ripley gently wipes her face and feeds her, and the girl who’d been silent speaks again, most likely for the first time since her family had died. Ripley protects Newt, but more than that, she loves her like a mother would. She lays down with Newt when it’s night time and the girl is scared, and promises she won’t leave her. The two share a bonding moment where both are able to smile and laugh with each other although they are in a frightening situation, and Ripley’s loving side shines through. In the end of the movie when it seems as though Newt may be dead, Ripley falls to the ground crying, too devastated to keep moving. It is only when she hears Newt screaming that she gets up, immediately going back into the role of protector, rescuing Newt in a truly heroic sequence that includes setting everything on fire and grappling with the queen alien while in a robotic looking lift suit. By the end of the movie Newt is calling her mommy, and it makes her death in the third movie all the more devastating and unfair.

All of the feels!
All of the feels!

And then there’s the ship’s cat Jones, the other survivor of Nostromo. Yes, Ripley the badass survivor isn’t just a mother, but a cat lover too! Those moments where Ripley cuddles with a cat or jokes around with her teammates just show that the best heroes are human, not stone cold fighting machines.

And they love her back!
And they love her back!

Ellen Ripley is not special just because she is a female hero, she’s special because she’s a beautifully written, dynamic female hero, with strengths and flaws. Unfortunately we will have to wait for Ripley’s return until after the release of a different Alien film, Prometheus 2, but as long as Ripley is returning, fans of the series can rest easy and leave the franchise in her capable hands.

“This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.”


Rebecca2Rebecca is the daughter of two Mexican immigrants who lovingly support her nerdier hobbies. She is a cosplayer, con-goer, anime lover and lifelong writer who’s had several short pieces of fiction and poetry published under her very long name. She has also recently finished writing her first novel, a young adult adventure book with LGBT characters. She is a new college student and is currently majoring in biomedical engineering.

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