Astrobiologist, author and science communicator, Professor Lewis Dartnell.Credit: Catherine Frawley
Astrobiologist, author and science communicator, Professor Lewis Dartnell.

Interview

Professor Lewis Dartnell

Professor Lewis Dartnell is an astrobiologist whose research is centred around finding microbial life on Mars. He is also a science communicator.


How did you get to your current job roles, both in terms of your studies and thereafter?

I've always been interested in science and space, so I studied Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Maths at A-level. I actually read Biological Sciences at university, but was able to bring this back to space during the course of my PhD in astrobiology at UCL. 

Astrobiology is all about the possibility of there being life beyond the Earth. I spend most of my time thinking about our next door neighbour planet, Mars, and whether its planetary conditions in the past have been habitable and suitable for hardy, bacterial life-forms, and what would be the best ways to detect if it's there.

What does an ordinary work day in your life look like? 

Working in science research is a pretty mixed bag. You might be in the lab; helping PhD students; away on fieldwork; in an exciting foreign city for an international conference, or just back at the office writing-up research papers! 

I like to get up early so I can work for a bit while the world is still quiet (and there's no emails popping up to distract you!), and then I'll cycle across town to the university and my lab.

What inspired you to research life on Mars?

Curiosity - plain and simple (the emotion, not the Mars rover...)! 

What I love about astrobiology is that it's so deeply 'interdisciplinary'. It combines biology with chemistry and geology, plus planetary science with physics and astronomy. You're always learning new things and it's always exciting. 

I think the possibility of whether there is life beyond our planet is one of the most important questions that humanity has ever asked - and it's thrilling to be involved in the quest.

In your search for life on Mars, which biomarkers are you looking for, what do they represent and which methods do you use to find them? 

We hope to detect signs of present or past life on Mars - so-called 'biosignatures' (or biomarkers), which are thought to be uniquely produced by biology (rather than, for example, the non-living chemistry of geology or other natural processes on a planet) and hopefully stick around preserved in the rocks for a long time. 

So, different organic molecules are very interesting, and I use a variety of different techniques and instruments to study them: Raman spectroscopy, infrared spectroscopy, fluorescence spectroscopy, GC-MS - either in my own lab or in collaboration with other researchers. 

From TEDx talks to the books you have released, how do you prepare for communicating science to an audience ?

Yes, so the other half of what I do, alongside my science research, is telling people about what science is up to and what we've discovered recently. This involves delivering events at schools or live festivals, writing articles in newspapers & magazines, as well as a handful of books now. I also make appearances on radio or TV. 

I really enjoy spreading the news about what I find exciting! I also run training workshops in clear communication, and the thing I always say is that even if you never want to be a science journalist, being able to communicate your thoughts and ideas to other people is a really useful skill, no matter which career you go into. 

What does the future of your career look like ? 

I think astrobiology has got a very bright future ahead of it. There's a feeling that we're only just at the beginning - stood right on the brink of some really exciting and important discoveries. 

It's only really this generation that we've had the technological ability to properly search for signs of life elsewhere - whether that's operating ultra-sophisticated robots to analyse the martian surface for traces of ancient bacteria, or deploying space telescopes to pick-up tell-tale gases in the atmosphere of planets orbiting other stars in the galaxy. 

If there is life out there, there's a good chance that it will be in our lifetimes that we discover the first hints of its existence. What an exciting time to be alive!

What advice would you give to young people who wish to pursue a career in astrobiology or science communication (qualifications to job applications & work experience or otherwise)?

Astrobiology is very interdisciplinary, so you can come into it from pretty much any science background. I wrote a blog post about how you can become an astrobiologist. I've got astrobiology friends and colleagues who are geologists, or microbiologists, or astronomers, or instrument engineers... 

I pursued science communication as a passion project alongside my academic work, but there are huge numbers of careers in the industry - whether that is as a writer, or radio producer, or researcher for TV documentaries, or delivering live shows. 

You don't need any particular qualifications to start out, just a real passion for the subject and a knack of telling a good story.

Author

Mélissa AZOMBO

Mélissa studied BSc Observational Astronomy at University of South Wales, PGDip Science Communication from Bristol UWE & graduated with MSc Astrophysics from Queen Mary University London. She currently writes articles while persuing a career in astronomy through data analysis.

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