I am a researcher who studies the broad and interdisciplinary fields of planetary science and astrobiology. Astrobiology is a relatively new field of study which focuses on the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe (including on Earth!). My focus is on the past and present habitability of Mars through which I use atmospheric modeling, geographic information systems (GIS), laboratory experiments, and field work. I also occasionally branch out and collaborate on exoplanetary (planets outside our solar system) studies.
Water on Past Mars
Mars today is too cold and too dry to sustain liquid water on its surface, but that wasn't always the case. From studying the surface geology we know there was liquid water billions of years ago; but we don't know how much or for how long it lasted.
My research examines the northern plains of Mars to determine the history of liquid water there. Many believe that there may have been a vast ocean created by catastrophic floods. Using old and new techniques, I am investigating the geology of proposed ancient shorelines and the distributions of boulders and craters to study the past processes that may have shaped the geology we see today.
Our 3D Image of Potential Martian Shorelines
Sulfur cycle on past Mars from volcanism.
Mars' atmosphere is very thin compared to the Earth's and is mostly carbon dioxide. However, it has evolved over time and plays an important role in understanding the habitability of past and present Mars. Under certain conditions the atmosphere can act as a sort of factory to help create the building blocks to life. Other times, it is able to provide a source of energy for living microbes.
We use an atmospheric model to test the affects of certain sources and sinks of atmospheric gases on the overall redox chemistry of the atmosphere. For example: volcanic eruptions are a great source of sulfuric gases, certain geological reactions can produce methane, and hypothetical subsurface life could potentially eat up carbon monoxide.
Planetary Spatial Science
A lot of my data-driven work focuses on developing and implementing new tools for quantifying the surfaces of planets (including the Earth!). For example, the size, frequency, and spatial distribution of boulders on the surface can tell us a lot about the processes that placed and modified the boulders on the surface.
We use a variety of tools such as ground and aerial LiDAR (lasers!), geographic information systems (e.g. ArcGIS and JMARS), and our own developed MATLAB and Python tools. These methods are used for detecting specific landforms (e.g. shorelines), measuring spatial distributions of features (e.g. boulders), and developing automated algorithms for measuring surface properties.
LiDAR Point Cloud with Removed Vegetation