2nd Annual Lecture Series
Taking Your Family to (the Subsurface of) Mars
MAY 5, 2016:
View the original Calendar Event here
Dr. Penelope Boston
Director, NASA's Astrobiology Institute
The STEM Division at Victor Valley College proudly announces Victor Valley College's 2nd Annual Lecture Series.
BIO: Penelope 'Penny' Boston
Dr. Boston has investigated the mysteries of microbial life in the lab and in the field throughout her entire career. The longest theme throughout Dr. Boston’s entire career has been exotic microorganisms in extreme environments. One of her main research interests is studying subsurface microbiology. Currently, she is collaborating closely with a group on lava tubes and the microorganisms that inhabit those rock surfaces. They are trying to answer questions about what these microorganisms are doing to the underlying bedrock of the lava tubes. They also want to know what species these microorganisms are and what kind of chemical compounds they might be producing. Some of them produce antibiotic compounds and enzymes that may be of great value for pharmaceutical and industrial uses.
Early in Earth’s history, it was a very different planet than it is today, and the metabolisms of the various subsurface microorganisms that exist in extreme underground conditions may give insight into the kinds of microorganisms that lived on the Earth millions of years ago. Dr. Boston hopes that these microorganisms can give clues about what the earliest microorganisms may have been like. She descends into caves herself to sample in these extreme environments.
“We were completely unprepared, and Lechuguilla is one of the toughest caves in the world,” says Dr. Boston about the first cave that she explored. The first time she ventured in to check out the microorganisms, she travelled to Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico. Her group had never caved before, and she and her colleagues trained for three hours before going into the cave for five days. “We got the crap beat out of us,” she said. While exploring the cave, she suffered severe dehydration, a busted ankle, bruises, hypothermia, and a blob of goo that fell from the cave ceiling into her eye, causing severe swelling and infection. The blob of goo, however, was a clue, and she hypothesized that she was seeing soil processes that weren’t undergoing weathering. After twenty years of working on the microorganisms, she found her hypothesis to be correct. What she was seeing down in that cave were microbial pedogenic processes in an environment without bad weather or running water. Despite her first caving trip being tough and dangerous, Dr. Boston decided that she had to pursue this area of study, and she learned to safely cave and has been caving ever since.
Throughout her career, Dr. Boston has been able to work with people in all different fields and from all over the world, including Dr. Carl Sagan and Dr. Frank Drake. Dr. Boston was heavily influenced by these two especially when she was younger and long before she worked with them. As a child, Dr. Boston frequently read My Weekly Reader, an educational periodical introducing young readers to news and current events. When she was seven or eight years old, she read an article about Dr. Drake and what is known as the Drake Equation, which is an elegant equation that attempts to quantify the probability of finding intelligent life in the galaxy. The same newspaper featured Dr. Sagan’s work on what was then known as exobiology. “I was already a science fiction reader, and that really captured my attention,” Boston says “When I went to college, I met both of these people at various meetings and that really focused my attention.”
Dr. Boston said that students studying science just need to really love what they are doing, because if they do not, they will end up miserable. For herself, the love of her fields of research “[hang] together by this fundamental curiosity about the origin and evolution of life in the universe.” Dr. Boston will go on to inspire those students that she teaches and will continue to make tremendous contributions to science, both out in space and down here on Earth.
Last Updated 3/12/18