BMSIS Visiting Scholar: Aram Khoshnaw

I am a space microbiology enthusiast from Kurdistan. Back when I was in high school, I used to be very good at science but I wouldn’t use it as a way of knowledge. This changed when, before joining university, I picked up some scientific books from the likes of Stephen Hawking’s Theory of Everything and Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden and read them avidly. These readings and further intellectual practices changed my mindset about the world and science and I soon decided to pursue a science degree at university. At that time, I was quite interested in understanding the origin of life and our place in the universe. For that purpose, I decided to study biology.

I studied biology at the University of Sulaimani, which is ranked among the best in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. At first, I was quite clueless about the scientific world and how scientific research is being done. After few months, I realized that research experience is as important as classroom knowledge for my scientific progress. That’s why I joined the Microbiology Research Lab led by Professor Haider Hamzah at my department. From that point on, I spent three years of my time as an undergraduate researcher working in the field of molecular microbiology and gained invaluable insights into the microbial world in relation to diseases and biotechnological applications.

When I graduated in 2020 amid the difficult circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was captivated by the power of DNA sequencing technologies and their applications during the pandemic. I became interested in reading about this field and making connections with well-known scientists around the globe. Parallel to that, I was reading a book called the Tangled Tree by David Quammen, which was regarding the life of Carl Woese and his discovery of another domain of life; Archaea. The book also covered more topics of the application of DNA sequencing and molecular techniques in investigating the molecular evolution of life. Thus, these events and readings made me become strongly passionate about the fields of microbial genomics and evolution. Since then, I have tried to pursue my research questions and ambitions in these fields at a local and global level.

That is why in the summer of 2022, I visited the Quadram Institute in the United Kingdom to join Professor Mark Pallen’s research group of bacterial genomics and metagenomics. During that period, I received training in microbial bioinformatics and studied bacterial genomes including the famous Escherichia coli bacteria (known better as E. coli). Furthermore, I had a prior connection with professor Pallen for more than a year before the visit and my correspondence with him during that time gave me insightful ideas on how to approach academic life and my visit resulted in gaining a strong network of genomics scientists.

However, despite my interest in these important and practical fields of research. I always dreamt of contributing to the research that revolved around space microbiology and astrobiology. I believe that in the future we are going to become a multiplanetary species and hopefully in my lifetime humanity can lay down the groundwork for doing so. Therefore, I wish to be able to be part of this great enterprise and utilize my knowledge in microbial evolution to contribute to the success of an efficient planetary travel.

Thankfully, I was able to join the Young Scientist Program, cohort of 2023, and work with Professor Shiladitya DasSarma and Priya DasSarma from University of Maryland to study the survival and evolution of ancient microbes that are hypothesized to survive on Mars due to their abilities in tolerating harsh environments. These ancient microbes are the Halophilic Archaea and I was quite honored to be able to work with a lab that since 2000 had sequenced the first Haloarchaeon (Halobacterium sp. NRC-1), collaborated with Carl Woese on sequencing another Haloarchaeon (Halorubrum lacusprofundi) and had made many other Haloarchaeal genomes publicly available.

Nowadays, I am continuing my work on Haloarchaeal evolution and genomics as a Visiting Scholar at DasSarma lab. I am hopeful that my studies will shed more light on the evolution of these important microbes and contribute to increasing our knowledge about them and their applications in astrobiology. Finally, parallel to my work as a Visiting Scholar I plan to apply for graduate studies (preferably Master’s studies) in the US for the upcoming Fall of 2024.