Interview with Oliver de Peyer

7 Oct 2011

Dr Oliver de Peyer, former chairman of the London Regional Group, is a post-doctoral fellow at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, and an expert in lab robotics. He also specialises in astrobiology and has worked at NASA in the past.

How did you get involved in your current project?
OP: I was a NESTA Crucible scheme participant, which encouraged collaborative teams across disciplines. I was urged to go for what I really dreamt of doing, so I came up with the 'High Altitude Bioprospector' project. The team and funding quickly coalesced - an example of the deep-seated interest that space research excites. NASA colleagues gave us a huge helping hand through semi-pro enthusiasts in California (the StratoFox and RocketMavericks organisations) which provided weather balloon and rocket flights.

What is the project's objective?
OP: We're looking for high altitude life, anything living around the 100,000ft mark (30,000m). This is 'astrobiology' - looking for life in extreme locations.

What does it teach us about the origins of life?
OP: The presence of life at these altitudes would be another example of life evolving to fill any niche possible. There is also a remote chance that life could drift between planets - 'panspermia' - in which case the high atmosphere could be the first port of call for alien micro-organisms.

Who benefits from your research?
OP: The low temperatures and pressures, and high ultraviolet flux will have led to hardy organisms evolving. Such 'extremophiles' are useful industrially, as often reported in C&I.

What have been the biggest challenges you've had to overcome?
OP: The project was done in our spare time, and in my case, on a bedroom workbench! We had a very short timescale for the rocket flight in particular - a fantastic opportunity, but which took us by surprise. Finally, we had to manage the logistics of getting it all from the UK, to a staging location in California, and then a 450-mile road trip to Nevada's Black Rock Desert for the flights. We had to take all our provisions with us, and then contend with overwhelming daytime heat and sandstorms.

It seems that you have had a great time doing this. What have you enjoyed the most?
OP: My first answer would be pressing the rocket's launch button! But that turned to grief when the parachute failed and we dug our crushed experiment out of its crater. A longer-lasting high was the camaraderie and friendships made.

Any personal lessons you are taking with you from this experience?
OP: Innovative collaborations really work. A biologist, architect, millionaire and sixth former can talk together as equals without egos or silos getting in the way. This is impossible to score in our metrics-obsessed society - if experiments cross disciplines, how can we assign citations in the scientific literature for instance? We need imaginative ways of awarding funding and above all, recognising potential.

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