Meet the Nepalese-American death metal guitarist who just found water on Mars

Luju Ojha is a graduate student, guitarist and scientific jack-of-all-trades who helped find water on Mars, all at an age when many people are still living in their parents' basement.

Despite the shirt, Ojha isn't your typical nerd. Georgia Tech

If it were up to Lujendra "Luju" Ojha, he might be killing it on guitar in his old death metal band today. Instead, he was in France for a fellowship when he called in to a much-hyped NASA press conference to share his historic finding of flowing liquid salt water on Mars.

If you get Ojha's voice mail, the recording tells you in a comic drawl that he might call you back, "or maybe not." Ojha is perhaps the latest in a growing list of young space scientists like Bobak who are breaking the mold of your grandpa's stereotypical buttoned-down, clean-shaven, pocket protector-wearing scientists.

When Ojha returns my call shortly after I leave a message on his cell phone, he's quick to clarify that he doesn't consider himself an astrobiologist or a planetary scientist. That's not just because he's only 25 years old and still technically in graduate school, pursuing a Ph.D. at Georgia Tech, but because he sees himself more as a "jack of all trades" as far as science goes. He also spends a lot of time studying earthquakes on our own planet, for example.

He walks me through how he devised a new technique to analyze photos from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and wound up finding evidence of water mixing with salts. After that, I can't help asking about a photo on his personal website -- it shows Ojha in long hair, guitar in hand, microphone in front of his mouth, belting it out with his old death metal band.

Ojha in an "old life." Lujendra Ojha

"Yeah, that was an old life," Ojha confesses with a laugh. "I was kind of in poverty with music. I wasn't making enough money so I said screw music, let's go to science, maybe there's more money in it. But there isn't money in science either."

Ojha was in a good position to make that dedicated leap to science. He moved to the United States with his family from Nepal as a teenager and landed in Tucson, Arizona, where he was able to start working with Alfred McEwen, who runs the MRO's high-resolution camera.

"The discovery of RSL [ recurring slope lineae, the name for the lines of flowing salt water observed on Mars] was kind of like my undergraduate thesis when I was at the University of Arizona," he recalls.

In 2011, McEwen and Ojha introduced RSL and the possibility of a wet Mars to the world. Ojha went to Georgia Tech to continue that work and on Monday, he and McEwen again joined with NASA to share the news that those mysterious Martian lines are as wet (and also salty) as suspected. The findings were also published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Salty water runs down the slopes of Horowitz Crater on Mars. NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Ojha still has another year or so before he graduates from his program at Georgia Tech, but he's also staying true to his jack-of-all-trades mentality. He's not only working on NASA's Insight mission to dig more deeply and study the interior of the Red Planet and intriguing concepts like "Marsquakes," but he also spends a lot of time in his native Nepal studying earthquakes in the Himalayas, a project that seems especially worthwhile following the tragic tremors there earlier this year.

How is all that possible?

"I just...I don't sleep and I work on a lot of different stuff that I probably shouldn't. I probably should enjoy my life but I don't."

I'm not sure if he's joking but I suggest that maybe he should try to enjoy his time in France on his current National Science Foundation fellowship.

"Yeah, yeah. It's been great," he laughs. "I'm not on a vacation...I'm here trying to do some experiments, but yeah...tough luck, right?"

He chuckles a little more, we say our goodbyes and I tell him sincerely that I look forward to following his career.

In Ojha's case, the death metal world's loss is humanity's gain. Or maybe not. There's no reason we couldn't one day 3D-print a guitar from a future Martian base and thrash a little, right?

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