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Meet the woman leading the way into finding life on Mars

Dr Louisa Preston is a leading astrobiologist and planetary geologist, UK Space Agency Aurora Research Fellow and author who works for the Natural History Museum. An expert in the investigation of how life might have evolved on other planets, she is currently involved in the next European Space Agency Roscosmos Mars mission to search for signatures of buried ancient life. Louisa regularly appears on radio and television programmes and has spoken about the search for life on Mars at the TED Conference in 2013, as a TED Fellow, as well as other public speaking events.

Louisa is also a science writer having authored and contributed to four popular science books including her own ‘Goldilocks and the Water Bears – The Search for Life in the Universe’. She is currently writing her second book ‘Pioneers’ which is due to be published later next year.

1. Tell us about yourself and what you do?

I am an astrobiologist, geologist, and author at the Natural History Museum in London. My role as a UK Space Agency Research Fellow (they kindly fund my research) is to study some of the Earth’s most extreme environments such as those found in Antarctica, the Canadian High Arctic and Iceland, and the life (both human and microbe) that lives or once lived in them. I use these sites as analogues for the kind of environments and types of life-forms we think might have once existed on Mars, and use rock samples from them to test instruments that will one day be sent to Mars and beyond.

I am also a science writer and communicator, having authored and contributed to four popular science books, with my own ‘third baby’, ‘Goldilocks and the Water Bears – The Search for Life in the Universe’ published in 2016 by Bloomsbury, and my next book, ‘Pioneers’ should be out in 2022.

2. What projects are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a few projects, mostly in preparation for when the Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover lands on Mars in 2023. I am using instruments we have in the lab that mimic those we have built into the rover, to extract biological information from rocks and minerals. I have samples taken from Icelandic hot springs, Spanish salt pans and Antarctic sandstones that have preserved signatures of life trapped within them. I am using infra-red light to identify the carbon-based molecules hidden with the materials, as preparation for doing the same tests on similar rocks on the surface of Mars. I am also a popular science writer and am working on my second book, Pioneers, which is about the potential for human life to colonise Mars and how life in extreme environments on the Earth is preparing us for this next step.

3. Can you tell us more about your role in the ExoMars 2022 mission?

I am a co-Investigator for the PanCam instrument onboard the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover. She was named to honour the scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) who made key contributions to our understanding of the molecular structures of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), RNA (ribonucleic acid), viruses, coal, and graphite. The overall goals of the ExoMars 2022 rover are to search for signs of past and present life on Mars and PanCam will be a key part of this as it is the eyes of the rover. Our job will be to take beautiful images of the surface of Mars, analyse what we see, chose geological targets to go and investigate to achieve the science goals of the mission, and to make sure we can safely navigate the rover.

4. Why is exploring life on other planets important to you?

Other than just being incredibly fascinating, understanding whether life arose on Mars as well as the Earth will help us understand how we came to be. So much of the geological history of our planet has been lost due to the incredibly active world we live on. Plate tectonics, weathering and erosion, volcanic activity are just a few ways our past has been destroyed and reworked, taking the earliest evidence of life on our planet with it. Mars has had a far less geologically eventful past and we believe if life did arise there, its remnants could still be trapped within its rocks. Finding this will hopefully enable us to fill in the blanks and change our perception of ourselves forever.

5. How did you discover an interest in STEM and in particular space science? I never thought about the fact I was ‘going into STEM’ or ‘doing science’. I never considered working in STEM as being a job. I just loved reading, hearing, and watching shows about space, volcanoes, the Earth, and exploration, and that fascination has guided me throughout my life.

"I didn’t give it a label; it was just something I was interested in"

6. What does a day in the life of a space scientist look like?

The same as most people’s probably…go to work, sit in the office with a hot coffee answering emails, procrastinate on social media longer than I should, and meet with my students. That is a normal day. Some days I get to be in the lab working on experiments and analysing samples which is always great fun but then come the months of data analysis in front of Netflix…a slightly more monotonous pastime. The best days are those weeks spent in the field, exploring extreme sites that mimic those on Mars and collecting samples. Mostly this involves a lot of hiking and smashing rocks with a geological hammer which I have to say is incredibly fun and extremely good for my soul. I cannot wait to get back to it once the pandemic is over.

7. As a science communicator for public and school events is it important for you to ensure the STEM industry has female representation?

I feel it is important to make sure that the public-facing aspect of science fairly represents the diversity and personality of scientists. Science, despite its inherent importance to our everyday lives, has a pretty negative image and a reputation that in today’s social media-driven world, has the power to dissuade future generations from engaging with it. What I hope to highlight through my work is that a scientist could be the stranger sitting next to you on the tube, your neighbour, the exhausted mum rocking a pleather jacket at school drop off (that’s normally me), the man doing stand-up at your local on a Friday night.

A scientist can be someone of any skin tone, any gender, any identity, any age and from any religion. There really is no ‘scientist’ look anymore, we are just normal people doing a job we love and feel passionate about.

8. What do you love about being a scientist? I love knowing how things work and why they happen. Being a scientist is a lot like being a detective. I am always questioning things, searching for answers and clues, and there is no subject more unknown and needing to be explored than space, especially understanding our place in it and how it might impact our future.

9. What is a career highlight of yours so far?

I would say joining the staff at the Natural History Museum in London is easily a highlight of mine. I simply enjoy going to work (or did before COVID-19 hit). I have loved the building and the ethos of the Museum since I was child. I now have a giant sloth outside my office and have sample drawers full of specimens from the HMS Beagle (the voyage that Charles Darwin was a part of) and the Scott expedition to Antarctica – the history, knowledge and dedication to preserving and understanding the natural world that fills the corridors instills me with such enthusiasm and purpose for my work. Plus, my kids love to come and visit me at work where I can share my passions with them, which is the biggest joy for me.

10. Can you offer any advice for young women and girls who are interested in pursuing a career in STEM?

The negative gender stereotypes of STEM rest on the assumption that girls lack the innate ability needed for success so I make it clear to every young girl I meet that if they want it, are interested in it, and prepared to work hard for it, then they can do anything. I also try to dispel all the stereotypes about having to be to super smart.

It’s about being curious, creative, logical, determined and ready to never stop learning. I was never the smartest kid growing up but I worked hard and persevered to do a subject I loved even though I couldn’t and still can’t do Maths to save my life.

I would also add that to have a career in STEM doesn’t mean you have to do science. So many fascinating people I work with are writers who write about science without conducting the experiments themselves, designers and architects who use science to guide their creations, and filmmakers and musicians creating the visuals and soundtracks to convey the wonders of alien worlds. Anyone can be involved with STEM without actually being a scientist and the field is so much the better for it.

Images provided by Dr Louisa Preston

Written by Stacey Soluade


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