Lauren McMahon

Lauren McMahon
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, Maryland
Principal Investigator: Lee Bebout


My fascination with biology began in my freshman year of high school thanks to an influential teacher known to karate chop the air and use a loud, stacatto voice for each mention of “sto-MA-ta” during plant lectures. As a student in the Academy of Science and Technology in The Woodlands, Texas, I took advantage of every opportunity to investigate the various aspects of biology through classes, competitions, seminars, a research trip to Alaska, job shadowing a doctor, and becoming the first-ever high school intern at Sigma-Genosys.


At Texas A&M University as a President’s Endowed Scholar, I focused on improving my molecular biology techniques while researching in Dr. Gil Rosenthal’s lab. The project in which I was most involved studied the genetic mating system of Xiphophorus birchmanni by genotyping 40 gravid females and their offspring to determine parentage and the rate of multiple mating. Being part of this project led to my interest in genetics, DNA analysis, and basic research. I also conducted wildlife research in New Zealand in a study abroad program with Dr. Bernd Würsig. The research projects in the program focused on the behavioral ecology of dusky dolphins, and they gave me my first taste of field work. As much as I love working in the lab, getting out into the field was an incredible experience which I hope to have again in the future.


After receiving my Bachelor of Science degree in Biology, I became a Spaceflight Microbiologist at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC). I currently work in the Environmental Microbiology Laboratory, so my tasks primarily consist of processing air, surface, and water samples from the International Space Station (ISS), NASA centers, and commercial vessels (SpaceX’s Dragon and Orbital’s Cygnus) as well as collecting and processing preflight samples for the ISS to ensure crew health. When I isolate bacteria from these sources, I identify them through biochemical methods or genetic sequencing. I also conduct research experiments such as determining the efficacy of different biocides on bacterial growth for future applications of inflight electrochemical disinfection of water for the ISS, determining the amount of times microbial removal filters can be used to disinfect potable water, and testing to find a urine pretreatment mixture that is less harmful to humans but still effective against bacteria for use onboard the ISS. I love being a team player but really enjoy honing my leadership skills by taking on the responsibility of larger and larger projects. In addition to my everyday work, I am pursuing a Master of Science degree in Biotechnology from Johns Hopkins University by taking coursework online each semester.

When I started working at JSC, I had no idea how much biological research was going on at NASA. I began to read about the extensive research occurring at all of the centers, and I came across the term “astrobiology.” I had never before heard of this field, but the more I read about it, the stronger my interest became. I have been broadly interested in studying evolution, but I did not know how my skills and other interests would fit into the picture. In the Ames Academy, I look forward to combining my NASA microbiology experience with my interest in early evolution. I am excited to learn as much as I can about astrobiology, microbial ecology, and how I can contribute to these fields. In the future, I intend to pursue a Ph.D. from one of the schools participating in the NASA Astrobiology Institute to more deeply study evolution in an astrobiological context. I am also anxious to learn how to document some of the research I have already conducted with an end toward publishing these processes and my findings in scholarly and scientific journals. My eagerness to do so stems from my familiarity with the procedure from helping edit my doctoral parents’ submissions in their widely disparate fields of study – music and information systems.


Outside of work, I love to dance any style I can learn, having started with ballet at age 3 and progressing through several years at the prestigious Houston Ballet Academy. Most recently, I enjoyed taking salsa lessons at JSC’s recreation center and dancing in the “NASA Johnson Style” YouTube video. I also enjoy learning languages, so I took Russian classes at JSC’s Language Education Center as a follow-up to my undergraduate Spanish minor. I think that outreach is critical, so I served as a mentor for the High School Aerospace Scholars Program and am involved in recruiting university students into our JSC Pathways Intern Program. Since I also consider inclusion to be vital, I have been very involved in both the Hispanic and the Out & Allied Employee Resource Groups at JSC.