The Edmond Sun

January 24, 2014

20 students participate in OSLEP seminar ‘Life on Mars?’

The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — Twenty students from colleges and universities across Oklahoma participated in the Oklahoma Scholar-Leadership Enrichment Program seminar, “Life on Mars?,” Jan. 3-7 on the Oklahoma State University campus.

Edmond junior Jordan Elizabeth Thomas, a chemical engineering major was one of the students taking part in the seminar. She is the daughter of Michael Thomas and Stacy Tiger of Edmond.

During the course, participants examined how the genomic revolution in classification of life provides tools for recognizing microbial communities in environments on Earth that previously were regarded as uninhabited or sterile. Students also discussed the sources of energy for metabolism and the sources of carbon for production of biomass used by extremophiles, which are microorganisms with the ability to thrive in extreme environments. Participants used instrument measurements and high-resolution images from orbiting, landed and roving NASA missions to evaluate various geological settings on Mars to determine potentially habitable environments.

Lisa Pratt, Provost’s Professor of Geological Sciences in Biogeochemistry at Indiana University, led the class. From 2003-08 Pratt led the Indiana-Princeton-Tennessee Astrobiology Institute, a project funded by NASA. She has also served on many advisory boards and committees such as NASA Science Advisory Group on Science Priorities for Mars Sample Return (2007-12), NASA Science Advisory Group for Mars Strategic Science for the Decade (2007-12) and the NASA Planetary Science Subcommittee of Advisory Board (2008-11).

Pratt’s current research projects include funding from the National Science Foundation and the NASA Astrobiology Institute to study sulfur isotopic compositions of sulfide and sulfate in water samples. This data combined with genomic data from collaborating microbiologists are evidence of an active deep-Earth microbial community. Also, with funding from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, she and her team studied alkaline and salt-tolerant bacteria and archaea in shallow lakes on the Oregon Basalt Plateau. Along with laboratory experiments, this data is used to evaluate the pathways for origination of life on a planetary body like Mars with severe water limitation.

With the guidance and expertise of Professor Pratt, the participant’s final project was to propose a Discovery-class mission to investigate a specific site on Mars for evidence of extant life.

College juniors, seniors and graduate students have the opportunity to study with nationally noted scholars during intensive seminars presented by the state-funded OSLEP program. Additionally, participants can earn two or three hours of credit for each seminar they complete successfully.