TAEM interview with Dr. Lewis Dartnell of the University of Leicester, England

Dr. Lewis DartnellTAEM- With the interest in discovering new worlds in space, and the possibility of making a manned mission to Mars in the very near future, The Arts and Entertainment Magazine has sought scientific professionals and educators to interview so that they can reveal the many aspects of making these discoveries for our student readers. One of the main topics on many of our reader’s minds is what can be expected to be found there and can effect the astronauts that may go to these worlds.

One expert that we have found is Dr. Lewis Dartnell of the University of Leicester, England. Dr. Dartnell, tell our student readers about your formal education and how it has helped you in your work.

LD- I’ve come from a life sciences background – I read Biology at Oxford University, before moving to University College London for a Masters-PhD programme in a department called CoMPLEX (Centre for Mathematics & Physics in the Life Sciences and Experimental Biology – a real mouthful of an acronym!). This is a phenomenal inter-disciplinary doctoral training centre where mathematicians, physicists, computer programmers, and biologists like myself are all shoved into a room for a year and told to teach each other the stuff they don’t know yet. That year was incredibly hard work, but really paid-off in giving me a very broad understanding of scientific research and what sort of techniques and analyses can be used. It was after this that I was able to start a PhD in astrobiology – the science concerned with the search for possible life beyond the Earth.

Space invadersTAEM- What made you particularly interested in the field that you work in ?

LD- Astrobiology is an incredibly ‘interdisciplinary’ field – it brings together research in geology, planetary science, microbiology, biochemistry, and astronomy and astrophysics. I find the subject matter absolutely fascinating, and it is this breadth of understanding that keeps me on my toes and continually presents new challenges. I’ve just come back from a week-long UK astrobiology conference in Edinburgh and was astounded by the diversity of different talks – there’s always something new to learn, but it also means that you’re constantly being nudged a little beyond your comfort zone.

TAEM- Tell us about your work at the University’s department called CoMPLEX and what it pertains to.

LD- As I described above, CoMPLEX is a doctoral training centre (one of several that have now been set-up in the UK) that trains you over the course of a research Masters degree and then provides funding for a PhD. I moved from CoMPLEX after completing my PhD, first to the Centre for Planetary Science at UCL, and now the Space Research Centre at University of Leicester for a new fellowship.

TAEM- Describe the subject of Astrobiology for our reader and the importance that it has in future space exploration.

LD- As I’ve already hinted, astrobiology is a wonderfully diverse area of science, including everything from biologists understanding the survival tricks of the hardiest microbial life-forms on Earth, to geologists trying to track down the first signs of terrestrial life in the most ancient rocks left on the planet, to astronomers spotting new worlds orbiting other stars in the night sky. My own research focuses on our nextdoor neighbour planet, Mars, and how life, as well as signs of its existence, might be able to survive in the martian surface exposed to the cold, dry conditions and bathed in deadly radiation from cosmic rays. Astrobiology really seems to hold the fascination of the general public, and is particularly important right now with the Kepler space telescope spotting thousands of new planets and the Curiosity rover exploring an ancient lake bed on Mars. I’m directly involved myself in the ExoMars rover, which the European Space Agency will launch in 2018, specifically to look for signs of life.

Life in the UniverseTAEM- You study the effects of cosmic radiation, particularly on Martian microorganisms. Why is this important and what could be the outcome of this research ?

LD- Unlike the Earth, Mars receives no shielding against cosmic radiation from a planetary magnetic field or a thick, absorbing atmosphere. The martian surface is bathed in harmful radiation, which over time will kill any dormant microbial lifeforms, and even start erasing evidence that they were once there. So it’s important to understand this to maximize our chances of finding signs of martian life, if it’s there. Understanding the biological effects of cosmic radiation is also critical for human missions to the Moon, Mars, or mining asteroids – to ensure we can keep the astronauts healthy. And studying naturally radiation-resistant organisms may one day lead to better drugs and therapies on Earth.

TAEM- What type of life do you hope to find there, and what evidence would you look for to achieve these findings ?

LD- The environmental conditions on Mars, even billions of years ago when it was thought to have been warmer and wetter than today, would only ever have allowed primitive but hardy microbial forms of life – like bacteria on Earth. There are many different traces that life can leave behind, from tiny fossilized cells to preserved organic molecules. But no one line of evidence would be totally iron-clad by itself, and so being sure about finding martian life will require lots of scientists working together.

TAEM- With possible oceans under the frozen surfaces of some of the moons around the larger planets of our solar systems, what type of life would you expect to be there and how would your work be crucial to these discoveries ?

LD- Another potential habitat for extraterrestrial life in our own solar system is Europa, one of the large icy moons orbiting Jupiter. Europa is believed to have a deep, dark ocean of liquid water sealed beneath its hard-frozen icy surface, and in fact, many astrobiologists consider this alien ocean to offer better hopes for an active ecosystem than even Mars. The problem is that Jupiter and Europa are so much further away and getting down into that sealed ocean, by drilling or melting through an ice shell perhaps several tens of kilometers thick, is a massive technological challenge for a remote probe.  The interesting thing with Europa, though, is that whilst cosmic radiation might be killing life near the martian surface, energetic radiation particles hitting down onto this icy moon could provide oxygen to actually support a deep marine biosphere.

Dr. Lewis at a lectureTAEM- Please tell our student readers about your activities concerned with science outreach towards students.

LD- Alongside my academic research I take great enjoyment in telling people about astrobiology and so I do a lot of events at science festivals and schools, as well as writing and appearing in documentaries on TV (I recently worked on a show called ‘Aliens: The Definitive Guide’ for the Discovery channel). A lot of my outreach work and freelance science writing is available on my website, www.lewisdartnell.com I’ve also published a popular science book introducing astrobiology, called “Life in the Universe: A Beginner’s Guide” (tinyurl.com/LifeInTheUniverse) and also an illustrated children’s book “My Tourists Guide to the Solar System” (tinyurl.com/TouristsGuide).

TAEM-  Dr. Dartnell, I want to thank you for the time that you spent with us and we know that many of the students that follow our publication have gained a better insight in the importance of your work and the subject that you teach. We ask that you keep in touch with us so that we can inform them of any further research that you are working on.