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On May 11, a sealed capsule containing fungi and bacteria fell from the sky and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. Microbiologist Kasthuri Venkateswaran could hardly wait to see what was inside it.

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Venkateswaran, who goes by Venkat, studies microbial life — the wild world of organisms too small for us to see with our eyes. Among his many research endeavors, Venkat has leading roles on two microbial experiments that recently returned from the International Space Station. The bacteria and fungi that came back last month will help researchers study how microgravity affects tiny organisms that were deliberately brought from Earth, and what kinds of microbes were already living alongside astronauts.

Venkat’s curiosity has taken his research from the depths of the ocean to the space station and beyond. His fascination with the survival of life in extreme environments has led to a variety of research endeavors. At JPL, he has become a leading expert in identifying microbes and preventing them from catching a ride on spacecraft. All the while, he has discovered and named 25 new organisms, including 15 since joining JPL.

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