Second Annual Lecture Series
Taking Your Family to (the Subsurface of) Mars
Video - Dr. Penelope Boston - The New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science
Credit: Dr. Penelope Boston and Dr. Larry Krumpler explain how the search for extremophiles in caves is related to the search for life on other planets. Mars imagery is courtesy of NASA.
The STEM Division at Victor Valley College proudly announces Victor Valley College's 2nd Annual Lecture Series.
When: Thursday, May 5, 2016 - 7:00 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.
Where: Victor Valley College's Performing Arts Center
How Much: The Lecture is free and open to the public! PARKING IS ALSO FREE FOR THIS EVENT.
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.
Dr. Boston says that there are applications for this kind of work on other planets such as Mars. The environment of Mars is hostile and Dr. Boston says that “it is an excruciatingly difficult environment to imagine our kind of aqueous, carbon life tolerating that.” Mars has a thin atmosphere, an aggressive corrosive and oxidizing surface chemistry, extreme desiccation, and ionizing radiation (Galactic Cosmic Rays and solar storms) that pummels the surface. Mars has no protective magnetic field like Earth’s Van Allen Belts, no ozone to filter out short wavelength ultraviolet, and no magnetic fields. Also, Mars has extreme temperature excursions (mostly in the cold direction) because it is farther from the Sun and has a very thin atmosphere (less than 1/100th of the density of Earth’s atmosphere). Things looked grim for the possibility of surface life existing on Mars, but Dr. Boston, along with colleagues were grappling with the Mars life situation and developed the idea of delving into the subsurface of the planet to explore what might live there. “This was at a time when[…] we were just beginning to become aware that there may be an indigenous subsurface microbiota about which we knew nothing right here on Earth,” Dr. Boston explained.
Dr. Boston also collaborates with colleagues from New Mexico State University and Goddard Space Flight Center on the development of an instrument that can detect both organic materials and mineral materials at low-power with relative speed. The instrument, which detects a very broad spectrum of targets, can be placed aboard a landed mission to a planetary body and can select the most promising samples for analysis. Such an instrument would determine ideal samples more efficiently before sending out bigger machinery.
Dr. Boston’s team, along with Dr. Michelle Creech-Eakman from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and Dr. Mark Swain and colleagues at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is characterizing the atmospheric chemistry and properties of exoplanets’ atmospheres of exoplanets. These exoplanets, distant planetary objects orbiting other stars, are being discovered left and right. Currently, the field is transitioning from just analyzing the exoplanets with astronomical techniques to attempting to characterize them as actual planets. “Planets are central to my thinking both about the extreme microbiology and astrobiology aspects, and also in terms of planets as objects in the galaxy and in fact the universe,” Dr. Boston says.
Dr. Boston has so many interests spanning across multiple fields of science including biology, geology, chemistry, astronomy, physics, and others. She sees clearly the overlaps among these fields and makes connections that other people may not see. “To me, the interesting things are always at these intersections,” Dr. Boston says, “They are very fertile.” When she studied at University of Colorado, Boulder, these subjects were separated by strict disciplinary walls. There was a dawning awareness that people should be dabbling in more than one subject, but many opposed this idea. Norman Horowitz, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, lectured Dr. Boston when she was a student, telling her that doing more than one thing was so bad and so dangerous because no one would ever take her seriously. According to Horowitz, people would look down on Dr. Boston as just a dilettante. Fortunately, she ignored him completely and went on to do great things working in the intersections of science.
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.”
Other people have influenced Dr. Boston as well. Her adventurous parents influenced her life, as travelling all over the world “was very empowering for a kid growing up in the sixties.” Other people also influenced her directly in one way or another. During her graduate years, she spent time with Lynn Margulis, a notable scientist associated with the Gaia hypothesis, and the two worked together on a project before Margulis passed away in 2011. “She was a very free thinker, and her ideas impacted me greatly,” Boston says, “she was a huge influence.” Dr. Joel Levine, a planetary scientist who specializes in atmospheres and spent his career at NASA Langley Research Center, was another huge influence. “He has been a major contributor to my thinking,” Dr. Boston said. She worked a NASA National Research Council post-doc with him in the eighties after finishing her PhD. Dr. Steve Schneider, one of the world’s leading climatologists, is yet another of Dr. Boston’s influences. She worked with him as a graduate student on an advanced study program fellowship at the National Center for Atmospheric Research on Gaia Hypothesis ideas, and over the years, they have convened two major conferences and edited two conference proceedings together. She also worked with him, Dr. Carl Sagan, and a number of other ecology and climate scientists in the late 1980s and early 1990s on the environmental consequences of nuclear war. Further notable influences include Helen Vishniac, a mycologist working on astrobiological projects; Dr. Willy Segal, a microbiologist who worked on tuberculosis and sulfur organisms in soils; her friend and colleague Chris McKay; and her advisor from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Dr. Ralph Cicerone (now President of the National Academy of Sciences).
Dr. Boston’s students say that she is a wonderful advisor to work with, and she cares about all of her students. They say she is very good at teaching the secrets of succeeding in academia. “She has such a strong presence that commands respect,” one undergraduate student says, “You know immediately when she starts lecturing that she knows so much and is such a brilliant person.” Another undergraduate student from Dr. Boston’s Geobiology class says that Dr. Boston is “a great professor that is a fountain of knowledge, and one of the sweetest professors [she has] ever had because Dr. Boston will go out of her way to help you if you need it.”
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.