From Gordon Science Center to NASA

NASA Globe

As a student at UC, Amanda Butler couldn't possibly narrow down her interests to just one major. Instead, she chose three: biology, chemistry, and mathematics.

Fortunately for Butler '09, the trifecta has served her well-and helped her find a career at NASA that's perfectly suited to her curious personality.

"I'm just fascinated by lots of things," says Butler, a Utica native and graduate of Proctor High School.

As a freshman at UC, Amanda focused her fascination within the world of microbiology. She had an early interest in DNA and molecular biology, and soon began pursuing her own research with help from biology professor Larry Aaronson.

"Amanda started working with me during her first semester at UC and quickly blew the doors off the lab," Aaronson says now.

It was Amanda's research, Aaronson explains, that helped identify Pseudomonas uticensis, a bacterium discovered in UC's Gordon Science Center. As an undergrad, Butler was twice recognized by the American Society for Microbiology with undergraduate research fellowships.

After graduating in 2009, Butler headed to graduate school at Mayo Clinic Graduate School in Jacksonville, Florida, where she delved into the study of cancer cells, spending hours in the lab working with human tumor samples and stem cells to learn more about how-and why- cancer cells grow. Then, as a postdoctoral fellow at University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine, she continued her stem cell research with frogs.

But for Butler, the singular focus took a toll.

"I spent almost 10 years essentially living inside a cell," says Butler. "Microbiologists often aspire to run their own labs and study one disease or one biological pathway for their entire lives. I knew that wasn't for me."

So when she began her hunt for the next opportunity, she was intrigued by a lead scientist job opening at NASA.

"I figured I wasn't qualified," she says. "But I've always been interested in space. I think everyone is."

Despite her doubts, she sent off her application --- and was shocked a few days later to receive a call from a NASA recruiter.

After several interviews, NASA's team was impressed. Butler was offered the position of lead scientist on the science branch of the rodent research team at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountainview, California. She started her new position in September 2017.

In her new role, Butler helps companies and universities develop studies using rodents to examine the long-term, physiological effects of space travel. She also works with NASA engineers to design equipment to perform the proposed experiments.

"It's an ideal position for me because I'm always working on something new and learning new things," she says. "I'll never get bored."

Today, Butler says the path to her dream job began at UC --- in Professor Aaronson's lab, to be precise. It's an experience she knows wouldn’t have been possible at a large research university.

"At bigger schools, undergrads are lucky to wash dishes in a research lab. At UC, I got to own my own project as a sophomore. I was invited to present my research at the American Society for Microbiology conference as an undergrad. I couldn't have asked for a better experience."

While she's grateful to all her UC profs, she's quick to credit Professor Aaronson ("Doc") for supporting her from the start.

"During my first week at UC, Doc welcomed me into his lab with open arms, and he's been a mentor to me ever since," she says. "All my baseline lab experience is because of Doc."

And how did Doc react to news of her NASA gig?

"He's super proud of me and bragging to everyone," she says, smiling. "Plus he's a huge Star Trek fan, so he's thrilled!"

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