Astrobiologist and NASA Fellow Dr. Amanda Garcia Named College of Science Galileo Circle Postdoc Scholar

Dec. 15, 2020

Astrobiologist and NASA Fellow Dr. Amanda Garcia Dr. Amanda Garcia is one of only a few early career astrobiologists at the University of Arizona. Her work in this exciting field, along with her publications and her leadership and mentorship contributions, were just a few of the reasons she was selected as the 2021 Galileo Circle Postdoc Scholarship. The Galileo Circle Postdoc Scholar Award recognizes the contributions made by postdoctoral appointed personnel or classified staff deserving of recognition for their substantial and invaluable contributions to the research, mentoring, and outreach missions of both the College of Science and University of Arizona.

Dr. Garcia is a postdoc in the Kaçar Origins and Astrobiology Laboratory, led by Prof. Betül Kaçar. Kaçar describes her lab’s and Garcia’s research goals as “to understand how the environment and life have co-evolved over billions of years by developing experimental systems” and "how understanding life’s emergence and early mechanisms may assist in finding life beyond Earth”.  

Dr. Garcia and I met over zoom recently so I could learn more about her path to becoming an astrobiologist, what her research is about and what this award means to her.

I asked Garcia to describe her research to a classroom of fifth graders; her eyes lit up as she talked about her work. “I research what life was like billions of years ago and how we can use this knowledge to search for life elsewhere in the universe. It's a frustrating problem because we don’t necessarily know what we’re looking for exactly but looking to the past can expand our ideas of how life operates. We can ask, how did life adapt to the ancient Earth environment, which was so different from the present? Before there were dinosaurs, microbes were the only organisms living on our planet. I’m trying to understand how their evolution, and in particular, their enzyme-driven metabolic processes, helped make Earth the rich, biodiverse planet it is today.”

I wanted to know how much of her research is field work, lab work or computer work. “Most of the computational biology work is complete, and I’m iterating on it now. My actual lab experiments started last summer. Day to day, we work with enzymes and bacteria. There are certain enzymes that have really important roles in the global biosphere that we specifically target. We use synthetic biology to "resurrect" ancient forms of these enzymes in the lab. We engineer modern bacteria with genes that code for these ancient enzymes to see how they impact bacterial physiology. We also extract the enzymes themselves and study their properties with our collaborators. These sorts of experiments are made to model how these enzymes may have operated in the past, and then we can infer how these processes may have co-evolved with the ancient Earth environment and impacted the ancient biosphere. Our connections with geologist colleagues provide an ancient environmental context to the experimental molecular biology work we do here in the lab.”

Garcia moved to Tucson in 2018 from Los Angeles, where she completed her BS and PhD at UCLA in Geology. Garcia is one of the very few scholars in the world to study evolutionary molecular biology after holding a PhD in Geology! I asked her why she chose the University of Arizona and doing a postdoc in MCB and Astrobiology. “I had somewhat of a unique path in my research since I incorporated molecular biology work in my geology graduate studies, which paralleled Dr. Betül Kaçar’s research as well. I connected with Betül around the time she took her position at UArizona and was interested in the research she was doing and wanted to focus on that for my postdoc. It was a natural fit, so I knew I wanted to be here!”Astrobiologist and NASA Fellow Dr. Amanda Garcia

I asked Garcia to explain what a postdoc is for students thinking about a PhD program and beyond. “A postdoc is someone who has received a doctorate and has a proficiency in science and in their field. A postdoc position is seen as a steppingstone to a future career in their chosen field. Though my degrees are in geology, my astrobiology research interests are interdisciplinary. The postdoc experience allows me to expand my scientific toolkit and develop new and interesting research projects.”   

Garcia has adjusted well to Tucson – “I actually don’t mind the heat; it's a lot like Los Angeles!” She loves hiking in the desert and learning about local plants and birds. “I like UArizona because the academic environment is similar to UCLA. There is a lot of enthusiasm for interdisciplinary work.”

When I asked her what she has enjoyed most about the University of Arizona, she noted the university’s commitment to astrobiology research. “The field of astrobiology field is becoming more well known. It's been nice to see how people are engaging in this work and how many new collaborations can be made.”

Don’t expect Garcia to slow down anytime soon!  Prof. Betül Kaçar’s team was recently selected as one of eight teams by the NASA Astrobiology Program to inaugurate its selection in ancient enzymes. The goal of the project is to understand the factors that influence life to use particular metals, and whether this can help us understand the evolution of life’s basic chemical requirements in the universe. You can follow the Kaçar team’s project, called Metal Utilization and Selection across Eons (MUSE) here.

 I asked Garcia what the Galileo Postdoc Scholar award means to her and she expressed her gratitude for this award. “A postdoc is a time in a career where you feel transient, so it’s easy to feel isolated in a sense. This award helps me feel like a part of the University of Arizona community and encourages dedication to my research. It was really nice to receive this! It makes me excited to keep engaging with the university.”

While working in on her research in the lab keeps her busy, Garcia is also a prolific author and has eight publications, several in prep for in high impact journals. Remarkably, she first-authored a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) “Reconstructed ancestral enzymes suggest long-term cooling of Earth’s photic zone since the Archean” which is a perfect example and testament to the innovation and power of her work. She also contributed to or first-authored three recent articles in  ChemBioChem, Geobiology, and Free Radical Biology and Medicine. She is currently leading a paper under review,  and has another in the pipeline focused on the origins of nitrogen-fixing enzymes. Find Dr. Garcia’s published work list here. (link to mcb page) Additionally, Garcia is a role model for many other early-career scientists at the Kacar Lab and the UA Astrobiology Core, and was recently featured by the Geological Society of America.

Congratulations Dr. Garcia; we are so glad you chose the University of Arizona, College of Science and MCB department to continue your research and we look forward to following you in your many endeavors!