Engineering Biology for Space Exploration


Viriditas is a small, focused, discussion-based workshop geared towards coalescing a practical plan for supporting human life on Mars. It will bring together innovators and visionaries across industry, academia, and government who are interested in applying synthetic biology to space exploration. The workshop will be a full-day event on October 20th, 2018 at Ginkgo Bioworks in Boston, MA.

The name Viriditas is inspired from a concept in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy:

All these conditions make survival for living things difficult in the extreme. But life is tough and adaptable, it is the green force viriditas, pushing into the universe.

Viriditas is a joint effort by the Harvard Systems Biology Department, the Wyss Institute, the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, and Ginkgo Bioworks. For further information, please see the Organizers and Sponsors sections of the site.


The structure of Viriditas is modeled after the concept of an unconference, which prioritizes attention and engagement with the partcipants. It will consist of four technical talks, interspersed with breakout sessions of small groups each to brainstorm ideas along three tracks.

After each talk, the participants can select which track is most interesting and join a breakout session that focuses on that topic. The sessions will be participant-driven and guided by a facilitator who will encourage and support contributions from each member. Each group will contribute to a live slide deck to summarize the group’s discussion. Please be aware that active participation is strongly encouraged.

The goal of this workshop is to have lively and productive discussions about tractable steps necessary to create life-support systems on Mars. We plan to coalesce the thoughts and conclusions into a review article and white paper that serve as a template for future study. We hope to create a stronger network of those who seek cross-disciplinary collaborations on the future of space exploration and that Viriditas will nucleate the formation of a more stable community of space-inspired biologists.




The Viriditas workshop will be held at Ginkgo Bioworks, 27 Drydock Ave, Floor 8, Boston, MA 02210 on October 20th, 2018.

9:00 AM
9:30 AM
10:00 AM
  • Break-out Session 1
11:15 AM
11:45 AM
  • Break-out Session 2
1:00 PM
2:00 PM
2:30 PM
  • Break-out Session 3
3:45 PM
4:15 PM
  • Break-out Session 4
5:30 PM
6:00 PM


To register, please fill out the registration form

Attendance is invite-only; the password is provided in the invitation email. If you received an invite email and would like to extend the invitation to others in your organization, please contact the organizers for a separate invitation, rather than forwarding the email.



Paul Wooster

Lead, Technical Development Mars Architecture and Vehicles, SpaceX

Paul Wooster, Principal Mars Development Engineer, leads the technical development of SpaceX’s Mars architecture and vehicles, including precursor activities and human-scale systems. He previously served as Manager of Spacecraft Guidance, Navigation, and Control, overseeing the integrated system design, fault tolerance, and vehicle performance associated with Dragon’s missions to the International Space Station.

Since joining SpaceX in 2007, Paul has led the development of a diverse set of capabilities, including space-to-space communications, relative navigation, and proximity operations with the ISS. He previously served as a Research Scientist in the Aero/Astro department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he also received Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in aerospace engineering. His research at MIT included the design and evaluation of a wide range of human exploration system architectures and development of strategies for affordable human Moon and Mars exploration.

Kathryn Bywaters, PhD

Research Scientist, SETI, NASA Ames Research Center

Kathryn Bywaters is a SETI research scientist at NASA Ames Research Center. Her work encompasses a wide range of interdisciplinary projects including the development of life detection instrumentation for future space exploration and investigating constraints on microbial growth in extreme environments. Kathryn has extensive fieldwork experience is some of the most extreme environments on Earth. She sent 4 months working on Devon Island in the Canadian High Artic looking at the winter to spring transition in active layer above the permafrost. She has performed three field seasons in the Yungay region of the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on Earth, working on the testing and development of instrumentation.

John Cumbers, PhD

Founder, SynBioBeta

John has a strong background in the synthetic biology industry as founder and CEO of SynBioBeta, a global activity hub and community of entrepreneurs, thought-leaders and investors. John is an active investor through the DCVC SynBioBeta Fund and his synthetic biology syndicate on AngelList. He is also the co-author of the forthcoming book What’s Your Bio Strategy?, a guide for any business wanting to understand the impact that biotechnology will have on their industry. He has earned several degrees, including a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Brown University, as well as a master’s degree in bioinformatics from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and an undergraduate degree in computer science from the University of Hull in England.

John is passionate about education and on the use and adoption of biological technologies. He has received multiple awards and grants from NASA and the National Academy of Sciences for his work in the field. John has been involved in multiple start-ups, such as those producing food for space, microbes to extract lunar and Martian resources, and hoverboards! He worked at NASA for seven years on the issues of resource utilization, extremophiles and sustainable technologies. He was instrumental in starting NASA’s program in synthetic biology and most recently, the lead for planetary sustainability at the NASA Space Portal. A super-connector, community builder and consultant, John has devoted himself to helping those around him connect into the synthetic biology ecosystem and gain the resources that they need to break through scientific boundaries and see their innovations applied in the real world.

Tara Karimi, PhD

Founder and CEO, Cemvita Factory

Dr. Tara Karimi is the co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory, which is a Houston-based Biotech company with the focus of in-space biomanufacturing of human life-supplies. Dr. Karimi started her research in biochemistry and after finishing her Ph.D., she ventured into stem-cell-based regenerative medicine. She completed two post-doc programs in collaboration with Tulane University, Texas Heart Institutes (THI), Methodist Hospital and the University of South Carolina. She has always been passionate about the evolution of life among different organisms and has a Ph.D. in veterinary medicine as well.  

The introduction to biochemistry was the onset of her journey into multidisciplinary sciences, as she completed several projects in genetic engineering of stem cells, developmental and molecular biology, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. As part of these endeavors, she worked on the genetic programming of stem cells for differentiation towards pacemaker and Purkinje cells as a therapeutic approach for treatment of cardiac arrhythmia. In other projects, she worked on bioengineering of osteoarticular tissues applying developmentally inspired methods. Dr. Karimi is also the author of a recent Springer book titled Molecular Mechanisms of Autonomy in Biological Systems by the Relativity of Code, Energy, and Mass.

This broad exposure and passion for the evolution and origin of life motivated her to establish Cemvita Factory with the mission of applying methods of bioengineering for in-space habitation and biomanufacturing of human life-supplies.

Luis Campos, PhD

Associate Professor, University of New Mexico

Luis Campos is the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress and Associate Chair of the History Department at the University of New Mexico. Trained in both biology and in the history of science, Campos’ scholarship brings together archival discoveries with contemporary fieldwork at the intersection of biology and society. He has written widely on the history of genetics and is the author of Radium and the Secret of Life (2015), and co-editor of Making Mutations: Objects, Practices, Contexts (2010). Campos also serves as Secretary of the History of Science Society, the “world’s largest society dedicated to understanding science, technology, medicine, and their interactions with society in their historical context.”


Shannon Nangle, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Harvard

Shannon is a postdoctoral fellow in Pam Silver’s lab at Harvard. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Washington in Ning Zheng’s lab and studied the structure biology of circadian clock machinery. Her work at Harvard focuses on the optimization of a device called the bionic leaf. Briefly, the bionic leaf comprises biocompatible water-splitting electrodes that provide hydrogen gas to CO2-reducing bacteria in a single reactor. She manipulates the metabolic pathways through genetic engineering to produce bioplastics, biofuels, feedstocks for heterotrophic microbes, and fertilizers; all with water, CO2, and electricity as the primary inputs. Her prime directive is to use synthetic biology to address the challenges of ISRU to promote a permanent human presence beyond Earth.

Mikhail Wolfson, Ph.D.

Senior Software Engineer and Computational Biologist, Ginkgo Bioworks

Misha Wolfson is a software engineer and computational biologist at Ginkgo Bioworks. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from MIT in 2012, working with Arup Chakraborty on problems at the intersection of atomistic simulation, machine learning, and immunology; he then worked on web-scale healthcare software systems and clinical decision support at athenahealth. Since coming to Ginkgo in 2015, Misha’s efforts have been focused on applying machine learning and software engineering to bioinformatics and experimental data analysis. He also works with the Government Business Unit to extend Ginkgo’s problem-solving capabilities to new areas, such as biosecurity and space travel.

Christina Agapakis, Ph.D.

Creative Director, Ginkgo Bioworks

Christina Agapakis is a biologist, writer, and artist interested in microbes and the future of biotechnology. She is the Creative Director at Ginkgo Bioworks,

Christina collaborates with engineers, designers, artists, and social scientists to explore the many unexpected connections between microbiology, technology, art, and popular culture. During her Ph.D. at Harvard, she worked on producing hydrogen fuel in bacteria and making photosynthetic animals.

Christina has taught designers at the Art Center College of Design and biomolecular engineers at UCLA, and she once made cheese using bacteria from the human body. She has written on biology, technology, and culture for a number of outlets and is a founding editor of Method Quarterly, a magazine about science in the making.

Ariel Ekblaw

Founder and Lead, MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative; Graduate Research Assistant, MIT

Ariel Ekblaw is the founder and lead of the MIT Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative, a team of over 50 students, faculty, and staff actively prototyping of our Sci-Fi space future. For the Initiative, Ariel coordinates space research and launch opportunities across the spectrum of science, engineering, art, and design, and builds collaborations on this work with MIT and Space Industry partners. Ariel is simultaneously a graduate research assistant at the MIT Media Lab, where she is completing a Ph.D. in Aerospace Structures in Dr. Joseph Paradiso’s Responsive Environments group. Her current research includes designing, testing, and deploying self-assembling space architecture, for future space tourist habitats and space stations in orbit around the Earth and Mars. Ariel brings an interdisciplinary approach to her research at the Media Lab, with undergraduate degrees in Physics, Mathematics and Philosophy from Yale University and a master’s in blockchain research from MIT. Her past work experience includes blockchain product development, cloud computing analytics at Microsoft Azure, big data programming at the CERN Particle Physics Laboratory, microgravity research with NASA, and Mars2020 rover hardware systems engineering at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Ariel’s work has been featured in AIAA, IEEE, Wired, Ars Technica, MIT Technology Review, Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, PRI’s ScienceFriday, and more.




Viriditas would not be possible without the integral support of our sponsors.

Harvard Medical School logo

Harvard Department of Systems Biology logo

Wyss Institute logo

MIT Media Lab logo

Ginkgo Bioworks logo