From Red Dirt to the Red Planet and the Search for Signs of Life

Sure. We’ve all thought about it… the question is probably as old as Homo erectus himself. Early man was probably sitting around admiring his latest creation – fire, when he looked up at a night sky, and wondered, “Is anyone out there?”  Since then, as human life has evolved, so has our quest to find an answer to this query. We’ve come a long way from our campfire-lit, stargazing musings. Now, we send exploratory rovers to distant planets to search for life; relying upon robot-gathered data beamed to us from millions of miles away to help us find our answers.

Mary Phillips, an associate professor of biology at TCC, is no exception to this line of scientific inquiry. She, too, has spent her fair share of time looking at the sky and wondering, “Is anyone out there?” Just a few months ago, Phillips got the opportunity to work alongside some of the world’s brightest minds pursuing information that just might find an answer to this age-old question.

This summer, Phillips worked as an unpaid intern for five weeks on a microdevices research team at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. JPL is NASA’s only federally funded research and development center that conducts research expanding human understanding of Earth, the Sun, the solar system, stars, planetary systems, galaxies and the formation and evolution of the universe. In addition, JPL manages NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, which currently operates two spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet and two rovers on its surface, one of which is the Curiosity, a mobile Mars science lab that is investigating the planet’s habitability including the role of water, the study of the climate and the geology of Mars.

While at JPL, Phillips was part of the team that develops the technology and protocols to test for biosignatures in extreme environments on Earth and outer space. She was also involved in the manufacture of the microfluid chip that is used to carry out analytical tests.

“I observed how various samples are prepared, tested and analyzed in the lab,” said Phillips.

Understanding biosignatures of microbial life is vital in understanding life on this planet, as well as investigating the possibility of it on other planets. Information gathered from studying modern microbial systems in extreme environments provides a foundation for interpreting the biosignatures of life on early Earth, and also gives us the fundamental knowledge required to interpret the results as we search for life on other planets.

Mary Phillips and Dr. Amanda Stockton, NASA Postdoctoral Fellow, with Curiosity at JPL.

“I learned first-hand how biomolecules (organic compounds such as thiols, carboxylic acids, etc.) are tested in a microfluidic environment. Microfluidics involves movement of very small amounts of fluids (micro means millionth),” explained Phillips. “I learned the protocols to make the chips, PDMS (polydimethylsiloxane) microfluidic gels, and developed and tested various microfluidic devices and assays.”

In addition, Phillips toured JPL with Miguel San Martin, head of Guidance, Navigation and Control at the Mars Science Laboratory Project. San Martin is responsible for Curiosity’s safe landing on Mars. Phillips also attended JPL open lectures and met with scientists in various labs working with development and protocols for origin of life research. She also spent time with the director of community college initiatives and with several local community college faculty members.

During her internship, Phillips reported back to TCC faculty about her experiences. In one such e-mail, she exclaimed, “I wish I could visit every building and research area at JPL. I am curious what they do in the Formulation Building! I feel like the rover on Mars... Curiosity!”

Phillips is now home and back in her classroom at TCC. She knows her internship at JPL has made her a better instructor, and that her experiences will have an impact beyond her students and into Tulsa’s science and manufacturing communities.

“I was able to learn, first-hand, from JPL researchers, who study biosignatures and origin of life questions,” explained Phillips. “I have been able to incorporate the research when we discuss [in class] characteristics of living things: What is life? How does life evolve? What is the future of life on our planet?”

Mission Control Room at JPL

In addition, Phillips is hoping to use her experiences from her internship to develop an integrative research course centered around a NASA challenge or JPL challenge. In the course, student teams would work on how to solve the challenge. This could involve performing an extensive research literature; interviewing engineers, biologists, etc.; developing an experimental design; and submitting a proposal with applications and broad impact. Additionally, the integrative research course would include a manufacturing component and encourage entrepreneurship possibilities that might emerge from student proposals. The course would have faculty mentors from math, biology, chemistry, engineering, physics, etc. Students who perform well in the course would form the pool of candidates eligible for summer internships at JPL.To help her create this integrated research course, Phillips is working with representatives from JPL, the Tulsa Alliance for Engineering, and Tulsa Fab Lab, as well as TCC grant writers, faculty and administration. The group recently met to discuss strengthening partnerships, possible grant ideas, and the need to have engineering faculty or engineers from the community involved.

Phillips believes that integrative education is the future. She contends, courses that integrate subject matter in various disciplines such as biology, chemistry and engineering, and contain a manufacturing component with entrepreneurship possibilities as well, will strengthen STEM fields and offer students an opportunity to experience how science is done in the real world. 

“For me personally, professional development and staying abreast of cutting edge research and technology is critical to help my students know about career and educational opportunities,” said Phillips. “The internship at JPL allowed me to learn first-hand about how origin of life research is performed, and about the development of technology needed to test for organic molecules found in extreme environments and outer space. I have been able to integrate NASA’s astrobiology research at JPL in my courses and share the exciting work that is being done at JPL with my students.”