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Early Career Innovator: Bethany Theiling Finds Adaptation is Key

Two years ago, Dr. Bethany Theiling arrived at Goddard with a horde of data, an open mind, and an inclination to make new connections.

Only hours into her first day at Goddard, a chance meeting directed her path towards new lines of investigation. Theiling recalled her first moments at Goddard’s orientation, striking up a conversation with Brian Powell, who happened to be a machine learning expert. Theiling discussed a curiosity in machine learning for small laboratory data sets, and Powell took an interest in her work.

“I will pretty much talk to anybody. You never know what’s going to happen, right? I mean, if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out, but it could be a great friendship or a partnership or anything,”Theiling said.

An early career innovator, Theiling now leads two machine learning projects focused on the chemical analysis of ocean worlds. Theiling is currently using machine learning to determine the composition of an ocean world, using algorithms that target what she has termed “predictive features”, which are defining characteristics of data from a specific chemical system that makes the data look the way they do. Using the data brought with her from her professorship at the University of Tulsa, as well as a vast amount of data from the National Science Foundation,Theiling and her team ‘teach’ the machine learning algorithms to identify these features. “These ocean worlds have the highest potential for life in the solar system, we think, so they’re really exciting targets,” Theiling said.

Photo credit: NASA/Rebecca Roth

Using IRAD funding, her team is also acquiring an isotope ratio mass spectrometer (IRMS) that includes two peripherals with the ability to analyze solids, liquids, and trace gases. This technology will be used to gather data and will continue to train the machine learning algorithms developed previously, making the system more precise.

Not only will this new technology be able to make analyses easier and allow a greater understanding of the compositions of ocean worlds, but it is Theiling’s hope to be able to use the technology to contribute to the science of Earth’s climate as well.

“Recruiting Bethany was a really great win for Goddard,” said Goddard Chief Technologist Peter Hughes. “She brings a wealth of expertise and a vision for combining traditional mass spectrometry – an area where Goddard excels – with AI to enable smarter off-world missions, which will strategically position the center to contribute strongly to the exploration of these ocean worlds and other science frontiers.”

Though her path ultimately led to research as a geochemist in Earth and planetary sciences, Theiling’s educational career started worlds away. “It’s been a very circuitous path,” she said.

She began her college career as a fashion design major at Florida State, but almost immediately transitioned to anthropology. She completed her degree, then discovered geology was what most piqued her interest. In the first of many unexpected collaborations, Theiling found herself working for a geochemist in her graduate program after a professor initiated a conversation between the two.

“She literally opened his door without any introduction, shoved me inside and said, ‘This is Bethany, she’s a go-getter’ and then closed the door behind me,” Theiling said.

The meeting settled Theiling’s mind about what she was interested in, leading her to become a geochemist by accident.

After receiving a masters in geology, as well as a doctorate in Earth and planetary sciences, Theiling began working as an assistant professor at the University of Tulsa but said she felt as if something were missing.

“At that very moment, I kid you not, I got an email from somebody at Goddard,” Theiling said. The email transcribed a job description that seemed to be written for Theiling. She applied and received the position.

Reflecting back on her experiences through academia and science, Theiling advocates collaboration and communication avidly.

“One of the big lessons I’ve learned is that I can’t do everything by myself,” Theiling said. “I would love to! I’d love to be able to code and do lab work and create instruments, but I can’t. Ultimately, I need a great team to work with, either that I’m leading or I’m a part of, and to be perfectly honest, being at Goddard has been the best of that experience so far.”


Bethany.P.Theiling@nasa.gov or 301-614-6909