Research

225 years of Tar Heels: Zena Cardman

Two-time Carolina alumna Zena Cardman was one of 12 people chosen out of more than 18,000 applicants to join NASA’s astronaut candidate class in 2017, becoming the fourth Tar Heel to enter the program.

Zena Cardman
(Photo by Robert Markowitz, NASA)

225 Years.Editor’s note: In honor of the University’s 225th anniversary, we will be sharing profiles throughout the academic year of some of the many Tar Heels who have left their heelprint on the campus, their communities, the state, the nation and the world.

As a Carolina student, alumna Zena Cardman could be found researching microorganisms in some of the most remote places on Earth. In her current job, Cardman may one day find herself in an even more remote place: space.

In 2017, Cardman was one of 12 people chosen out of more than 18,000 applicants to become a member of NASA’s astronaut candidate class.

The Williamsburg, Virginia, native graduated from Carolina in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in biology, honors in poetry and minors in marine science, creative writing and chemistry. Cardman received her master’s degree from Carolina in marine science in 2014 and was pursuing a Ph.D. in geoscience as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at Penn State University when she was selected by NASA.

While she was a student at Carolina, Cardman studied microbial ecology in hydrothermal vents, the Arctic and oil spill affected sediments of the Gulf of Mexico. She also collected data for the Palmer Long Term Ecological Research Network in Antarctica and worked at the Pavilion Lake Research Project in British Columbia.

She studied microorganisms to better understand life on Earth. Billions of years ago, before plants or animals, before the rise of oxygen, single-cell bacteria and archaea were the only Earthlings.

“When we find really ancient metabolisms, they can tell us a lot about what might have been going on in early Earth,” Cardman has said. Understanding those early-Earth organisms, she said, will be key in exploring and examining other planets.

Cardman has one more year of training as an astronaut candidate.

While Cardman pursues her training, three other Carolina alumni have also been astronauts: