A Summer of AstrobiologySeptember 28, 2017 / Written by: Miki Huynh
Fall is officially upon us, but not too long ago early career astrobiologists were keeping busy throughout the summer season organizing conferences, presenting research, coauthoring papers, and conducting research out in the field.
Here we capture just a few of the activities and achievements of interns and young scientists engaged in astrobiology-related programs this summer—students making great impressions as they make great strides in their education and careers.
Students Making an Impact
With the Alternative Earths team (based at the University of California, Riverside), graduate student Christopher Tino travelled to southern Germany, sampling drill cores from Nördlinger Ries, a Miocene-aged impact crater containing a remarkably continuous record of an ancient alkaline lake system. Tino analyzed the geochemistry and associated life of these sediments, and he assessed the analog value of the Nördlinger Ries crater as part of ongoing exploration for past life in ancient crater-fill sediments on Mars. He worked closely with his advisor, Alternative Earths PI Tim Lyons, as well as former NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow Eva Stüeken, an astrobiologist and newly hired Lecturer in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of St. Andrews.
Chris Tino in front of a massive outcrop of fossil lacustrine microbialites in Nördlinger Ries crater, Germany. Source: UCR
Over at MIT, summer interns with the Foundations of Complex Life spent their summer coauthoring papers and attending their first international conference, the International Meeting on Organic Geochemistry in Florence, Italy.
Elliott Mueller, a recent graduate from Northwestern University, worked with graduate student Emily Matys to conduct a study of membrane lipid changes in wild type and mutant, low-light-adapted cyanobacteria. In his spare time, Elliot also works on a self-designed project: a new lipid analysis methodology using subcritical water as a solute in his spare time.
Anaïs Roussell, an aspiring astrobiologist, examined the geochemistry of rocks that record environmental change across the Precambrian-Cambrian transition. Following her positive experience, Anaïs plans to return for another visit to MIT in the spring of 2018 to extend her summer study.
Noah McDaniel, an MIT sophomore, assisted on a project in the Summons Lab devised by Tyler Mackey and Kristin Bergmann, examining the biomarker hydrocarbons present in rocks from Svalbard that record events leading up to and through the period of Snowball Earth.
Left to Right: Elliott Mueller, Anaïs Roussell, and Noah McDaniel. Source: MIT
At the Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) based at the University of Washington, students Renae Stanley and Melvin (Sunny) Miles took part in an inaugural Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) astrobiology program organized in partnership with Northwest Indian College, within the Lummi Nation in northwestern Washington. With guidance from VPL scientists Vikki Meadows, Andrew Lincowski, Jacob Lustig-Yaeger, and Erika Harnett, Renae and Sunny received training on data analysis tools and programming languages including Matlab and Python, learned how to run planetary simulations and interpret results, and conducted a comparative study of the effect of Proxima Centauri’s UV spectrum on the atmospheric composition of an Earth-like planet.
Renae Stanley. Source: VPL
Summer interns with the Icy Worlds team based at Jet Propulsion Laboratory noted the great working relationship and sense of comradery with staff scientists and fellow interns.
Erika Flores, a graduate in Chemical Engineering with a minor in Material Science Engineering at Cal Poly Pomona, kept busy at JPL with support from the NASA Undergraduate Internship (UI) Program, the JPL Maximizing Student Potential (MSP) Program, and NASA Interns, Fellows, and Scholars One Stop Shopping Initiative (OSSI). With geochemist and astrobiologist Laurie Barge as her mentor, Erika researched hydrothermal vents and ran experiments creating and analyzing “chemical gardens” and their precipitates, focusing also on creating green rust precipitate. She even had opportunity to share lab tips and equipment with interns at the Oak Crest Institute of Science.
Elena Thomas, a chemistry major from Pasadena City College, was supported by JPL’s Year Round Internship Program under the supervision of Paul Johnson and Robert Hodyss. She assisted the Icy Worlds team with investigations into the habitability of oceans worlds such as Europa and Enceladus. Elena’s experiments involved creating and flash freezing salt solutions and analyzing results with spectrometers. She previously interned at JPL through the Student Independent Research Internship (SIRI) Program with the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE) and is wrapping up a final semester before transferring to a four-year college.
Erika Flores (left) and Elena Thomas (right) in the labs at JPL. Source: JPL
Eight community college students spent nine weeks in the labs at the University of Southern California describing the physiology and phylogeny of novel bacteria isolated from marine subsurface environments. Charbel Bou Khalil (Orange Coast College), Alex Cervantes (Cerritos College, Rio Hondo College), Raquel Diaz (Brookdale Community College), Angelica Escobar (Santiago Canyon College), Karen Ho (Pasadena City College), Stephen Hoefler (Mission College, West Valley College), Christopher Neely (Rio Hondo College), and Hillary Smith (Waubonsee Community College) were part of the Community College Cultivation Cohort (C4) summer residential internship program led by Jan Amend, PI of the Life Underground team.
C4 was funded in part by an NSF
REU grant, the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (CDEBI), and the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). The students learned and directly applied techniques including DNA extraction, genome sequence analysis, electron and epi-fluorescence microscopy, anaerobic cultivation, metabolism assays, and analytical chemistry. Their summer lab work resulted in two manuscripts: a genome announcement paper and a paper fully characterizing—and naming—the novel isolate. Postdoctorate Roman Barco, lab technician Pratixa Savalia, and USC undergraduate (and former C4 student) Karla Abuyen provided mentorship.
Clockwise from top: Charbel Bou Khalil, Stephen Hoefler, Hillary Smith, and Angelica Escobar with mentor Karla Abuyen in the Amend lab; Alex Cervantes; Angelica Escobar at Curiosity “mission control”; Alex Cervantes, Karen Ho, Chris Neely, Stephen Hoefler, Angelica Escobar, Hillary Smith, and Raquel Diaz at JPL. Source: J. Amend/USC
SETI’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) summer program introduced students to a wide range of topics including potential landing sites for human missions to Mars, calibration for exoplanet telescopes, models of protoplanetary disks, protoplanetary analogues in the rings of Saturn, and the astrophysical applications of SETI data.
REU intern Khanh Luu assisted senior scientist Dr. Virginia Gulick with Mars digital terrain modeling, where Khanh mapped the drainages of two gully systems of the Northwest Palikir crater. Her study could help researchers determine how the gullies were formed and shed light on the past climate and extent of water on Mars. Khanh used ENVI and ArcGIS to measures the slopes, lengths widths, areas, and volumes of these gully systems. She also delineated the drainage basin (catchment) area for each gully and mapped the entire gully drainage systems from finger-tip tributaries in the alcove source regions to the distributary channels on the debris aprons at the gully system terminus. She used CRISM Analysis Tools to study the gully systems’ mineralogy. Khanh also helped with a separate project in analyzing rock samples in thin sections, and obtaining several Raman spectra of each sample.
Khanh Luu (right) with Gulick’s 2017 summer research team. From left to right: visiting postdoc Dr. Tim Goudge (UT- Austin), SETI Institute research assistant Natalie Glines, NASA Summer interns Tyler Paladino (UCSC), Richard Nelson (UCSC), SETI REU Intern Khanh Luu (CSU-San Bernadino), and front center: NASA Intern Paige Morkner (CalPoly). Source: V. Gulick/NASA Ames
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, scientists with the Habitability, Life Detection, and the Signatures of Life on the Terrestrial Planets team hosted several students working on a wide range of projects.
Eric Boyd’s lab at Montana State University hosted Mariah Friedlander, a recent graduate of Salish Kootenai College, for a six-week summer internship. Mariah worked to develop laboratory skills associated with the isolation and characterization of extremophiles, specifically thermoacidophiles from Yellowstone hot springs supported by volcanic gases.
Mitchell Freyermuth, an undergraduate Summer Research Fellow at Furman University, was sponsored by Chris Romanek and investigated the factors that influenced the incorporation of trace and minor elements in carbonate minerals as part of Mitchell’s senior thesis in Earth and Environmental Sciences. His summer research could shed light on environmental conditions and factors that are responsible for the geochemistry of carbonate minerals on the surface of Mars.
UW-Madison microbiology major Evan Handowski, sponsored by Eric Roden, worked in the geomicrobiology lab with Ph.D. student Stephanie Napieralski on extracting DNA and measuring ATP content in cultures designed to grow microorganisms capable of generating energy from the oxidation of Fe(II)-bearing primary minerals.
Undergraduate Geoscience major Amanda Heinsohn, supervised by education and public outreach lead Brooke Norsted through the Geology Museum at UW-Madison, helped to organize a two-week astrobiology-themed summer camp for elementary school students. Lessons ranged from rover races and building Martian bases to exploring extremophiles and where NASA is looking for life in our solar system. In total, there were 28 kids ranging from 1st-5th grades, who, among the many activities, got to design their own Mars “pasta rovers.”
UW-Madison interns. Clockwise from top: Mariah Friedlander (center); Evan Handowski; Amanda Heinsohn and the pasta rover, Lasagna; and Mitchell Freyermuth. Source: UW-Madison
We look forward to seeing where life after summer 2017 takes these young scientists, and anticipate hearing more updates about their work in the future!
This is just a snapshot of the astrobiology summer programs and activities available. Be sure to check at the above institutions’ websites and the Astrobiology at NASA careers and funding pages for future year round opportunities.
Watch Talks from AbGradCon 2017
- Electron Acceptors and Carbon Sources for a Thermoacidophilic Archaea
- Yosemite Granite Tells New Story About Earth's Geologic History
- Supporting SHERLOC in the Detection of Kerogen as a Biosignature
- New Estimates of Earth's Ancient Climate and Ocean pH
- How Microbes From Spacecrafts Survive Clean Rooms
- Radical Factors in the Evolution of Animal Life
- Understanding Oxygen as an Exoplanet Biosignature
- Recap of the 2018 Astrobiology Graduate Conference (AbGradCon)
- Astrobiologist Rebecca Rapf Receives Inaugural Maggie C. Turnbull Early Career Award
- Searching for the Great Oxidation Event in North America