UB PhD Candidate Searches for Alien Life with NASA

Joseph Bango with his advisor at a NASA facility

Above: Joseph Bango (left), UB PhD student in Technology Management, and Patrick Conway (right), UB Medical Laboratory Sciences Laboratory Manager, showing their University of Bridgeport pride at the NASA Ames Research Center (Photo Credit: Joseph Bango).



December 2-6, 2019 were not exactly typical days at the office for UB PhD candidate Joseph Bango. He spent this time, along with UB Medical Laboratory Sciences Laboratory Manager Patrick Conway, at the NASA Ames Research Center testing instruments to search for alien life that may exist on one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus. 

This recent visit, however, was not a first for Bango: NASA has awarded his company, Connecticut Analytical Corporation, five contracts totaling just under 2.5 million dollars in funding, all part of this search for life beyond our planet.

So how did Bango get involved with NASA on this project? 

It started with a probe sent to Saturn called the Cassini mission. During Cassini’s voyage, as Bango explains it, scientists noticed “a funny glow around the moon. It turns out this was the visual effect of water jets spraying out into space from cracks in the surface of this moon.” The source of the water is an ocean beneath Enceladus’ surface; it may also be a source of life, as indicated by proteins picked up by Cassini.

As a result of this observation, NASA is preparing for a “life finder” mission that will send a probe to gather samples from the water to bring back and analyze. But there is a lot of preparation work before undertaking the mission, and one of these tasks is simulating Enceladus’ projecting ice grains here on planet Earth.

Enter Joseph Bango, who successfully proposed the solution: a hypervelocity ice gun that would mimic Enceladus’ water jets. The idea came from his years of working with the late Nobel laureate and Yale chemistry professor John Fenn, who developed a technology called electrospray, which Bango applied to design his ice gun. 

But Bango didn’t stop there: he also proposed a method for identifying the microorganisms, potentially in the water jets, which does not require NASA to wait for physical samples to return to Earth. The method involves a technology called mass spectrometry, which measures the mass of molecules to identify them. Adding this technology to the probe headed to Enceladus will help NASA gather information about potential life well before physical samples return back to Earth. Bango is also developing a “decision-tree” that will establish criteria for determining whether or not what they capture is, in fact, life.

Bango visited the Ames Research Center in December to test his proposed methods. Ultimately, when NASA sends out the probe, if extraterrestrial life is found, the first news of it may reach us through imaging generated by Bango’s approach.

He is not the only UB student involved in this effort. Under faculty adviser Ruba Deeb, director of biomedical research development and associate professor of biomedical engineering and technology management, Sophia Agostinelli, an MS student in biomedical engineering, and Makayla Maroney, an MBA student, are also collaborating with Bango.

Deeb, who fondly refers to Bango as “the energizer bunny,” said this project has “fostered multidisciplinary collaboration in a remarkable way. It’s also a very positive learning experience and reinforcement for our students. Important projects are happening right here at UB.”

Bango received his BS and MS in electrical engineering at UB and is also a Fellow in MIT’s Advanced Study Program. He is back at UB working on his PhD in technology management. His doctoral project also relates to identifying microorganisms (among other things), but it is focused on something quite literally more down-to-earth. For this project, Bango focuses on fighting the intentional release of viruses or bacteria into public spaces as an act of bioterrorism. Mass spectrometric measurements could more quickly determine the damaging compounds, in turn expediting an antidote.

He chose to pursue this PhD project at UB for a variety of reasons. “The University is unique in that students can work directly with faculty to pursue academic interests and develop new skill sets,” Bango said. The technology management program permits people like him, well into their careers, to continue their work while pursuing a PhD. “It’s really the only doctoral program of its kind in the Northeast,” he explained.

Deeb said the technology management PhD is “a highly sophisticated program that is very attractive to a group of entrepreneurs that are already very successful.” As the CEO of Connecticut Analytical Corporation, Bango is an excellent example of the strengths and possibilities of this program.

Here at UB, one can pursue a PhD, run a company, fight bioterrorism, and search for alien lifeforms with NASA all at once.