From Bristol to Mars via Greenland – explorations into the world of extremophiles

Michaela-Musilova_SoapboxBristol2014.jpgMichaela Musilova (MM) is a PhD student in the Department of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol. Her work involved studying extremophiles in glacial environments. Here she joins Soapbox Science (SS) to tell us about her work and how she has taken one step closer to her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut by taking part in a Martian simulation expedition.  You can hear Michaela talk about “Studying Aliens – from Bristol to Mars” on June the 14th. Follow her on twitter @Michaela_MDRS


SS: Hi Michaela, first thanks for taking the time to talk to us here at Soapbox Science, to kick things off can you firstly tell us how you got into you current position?

MM: I am originally from Slovakia and my family, unfortunately, was never able to support my studies. However, my passion for space science drove me to try hard and get numerous scholarships to study at University College London (UCL), where I completed an MSci Planetary Science degree with First Class Honours (Dean’s List). In 2009, I studied at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) on a scholarship, as a competitively selected exchange student. At Caltech I was able to work with leading scientists in astrobiology, including Mars Curiosity Rover’s chief scientist, Professor John Grotzinger. Thanks to this work I was able to put my signature into the Curiosity rover itself, which is currently on Mars! Subsequently, I was awarded the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship to work at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Today, I am a PhD student on a NERC research scholarship at the University of Bristol, preparing experiments on extremophiles globally, from the mountains of Japan to the glaciers in Greenland.


SS: Gosh, quite a CV you have already, that’s fantastic Michaela! Other thank you own drive and fascination was there anything or anyone else who really inspired you to follow this career path?

MM: My career path and lifelong dream started when I was a child with a trip to NASA’s Goddard Space Centre, USA. Wearing an astronaut’s suit on that occasion changed my life forever. To this day, a photo of me in that suit hangs on my parents’ refrigerator door and reminds me of the ambitions of my nine-year-old self. Ever since, I have aspired to study space and life in the Universe, hoping that one day I could work for NASA or the European Space Agency (ESA); even to become an astronaut!


SS: That’s such a wonderful story to still be working towards a dream you had when you were 9. So can you tell us in a little more detail about you current research?

MM: My primary interest is in extremophiles, organisms that live in extreme environments, such as deserts, deep sea vents and glaciers. They are significant to industry and medical research, since their enzymes are stable and functional over a wide range of physical/chemical conditions. Similar life could potentially be found in analogous extreme conditions on other planets and moons. Thus, they are very important for astrobiology – a multidisciplinary science exploring the origin and distribution of life within the Universe.

For my PhD research, I specialise in studying how extremophiles survive and produce nutrients in glacial environments, using a combination of field and laboratory techniques. My research projects range from re-creating Arctic conditions in the laboratory, to conducting research on glaciers in Greenland and even to participating in a Martian simulation mission. One of my PhD projects has yielded very exciting results, which have implications for global climate change, sustainability research for countries with infertile soils and space exploration.


SS: Even though you are still in the early stages of your scientific career have you had any particular high points that you would like to share with us?

MM: Considering that my dream has always been to become an astronaut, the high point of my career was definitely becoming a Martian analogue astronaut. This year, I was selected as part of a crew of six highly qualified scientists and a filmmaker, to conduct a Martian simulation expedition at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS). It is located in the high altitude, cold desert in Utah, USA, where the environmental conditions, geological features and biological attributes are similar to those present on Mars.

My mission at MDRS was a total immersion simulation. This meant that every minute of every day was spent facing the physical and social challenges of how life on Mars would be like, one day. As “Marstronauts” we were subjected to psychological, nutritional and scientific studies, designed by researchers from around the world. These included living with limited amounts of electricity, oxygen, water and dehydrated powder-like astronaut’s food. We also conducted our own research, working with NASA, ESA, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the Slovak Organisation for Space Activities (SOSA).


SS: What an opportunity to be part of such an important project, it must have been really inspiring. It also sounds like you were working in some challenging conditions, what do you find to be the most difficult aspect of you current work?

MM: Most people expect me to say that fieldwork is the most difficult aspect of my research career. However, fieldwork is actually the highlight of what I do. It is thrilling and fascinating to be able to go to spectacular extreme environments to collect my samples. What I find to be the most challenging part of being a scientific researcher is the work/life balance. Especially, if the research involves managing labwork, fieldwork, data analysis and writing. Certain types of scientific procedures in the labs can cause you to work very long hours during the week and at weekends. Once, I had to come in on a Saturday night at 2:30 am because I had an experiment running at that time that needed attending to. On top of that, fieldwork can take you to remote places with no connection to any civilisation for months on end. Then, you have to find time to process all that data and write academic publications. Now, imagine trying to fit meeting friends/family, having hobbies, doing sports and some time for yourself in there somewhere. It is extremely difficult, but at least it teaches you to be very organised and to prioritise things in life.


SS: You have just mentioned about the challenges of maintaining a good work/life balance, is that the main thing that you would change about the scientific culture right now?

MM: Yes, as I said before, the work/life balance is a big issue in academia. It is the underlying reason why many times men and women wanting to have families get discriminated against. They can’t commit to working overtime all the time and for many research groups that gives them “negative points” to put it politely. It is also why many researchers struggle physically and mentally. I still remember with horror how 5-6 students and professors committed suicide within 18 months of me studying there due to the pressure they were going through at that institution. If there was a way to implement more reasonable working hours and workloads at universities, then pursuing a career in academia would be a much less scary and off-putting perspective for many people.


SS: So if you could give a new female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia any advice what would it be?

MM: As a PhD student myself, I have yet to learn what awaits me in a full-time academic career. However, there are a few things that I have learnt since starting university that I feel like I will stick to for the rest of my life in academia. Of these, the top recommendation is to choose your supervisors/principal investigators wisely. These are the people that will be helping you and guiding you until you will be standing on your own feet as a principal investigator or professor one day. They are also going to influence your general work/life balance and happiness. When I searched around for internships, master’s projects and PhDs, I focused both on the research and the research group I would be working in. At interviews, I interviewed them as much as they interviewed me, because I wanted to be 100% that I would be treated well and have a productive working environment. The same applies now when I’m looking for post-docs and fellowships. I must say that this has been incredibly useful for me and helped me find a great place to do my PhD at with very encouraging and supportive supervisors.


SS: Sounds advice Michaela. So just before we finish can you tell us what attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

MM: I greatly enjoy doing outreach and teaching the public about science  – whether it’s my research or any topic that can help inspire people to be inquisitive about the world around them. I have gotten to where I am today thanks to role models and wonderful scientists who made me enthusiastic about a range of topics in science. I find teaching very rewarding  – the looks of wonder and fascination on people’s faces are what motivates me. Becoming a Soapbox Science speaker is a perfect occasion for me try a different kind of outreach/science communication activity and get experience in it. I am sure that I will learn a lot from the event and thus I would be able to improve my future teaching and communicating performances.


SS: And if you had only one word to sum up you expectations for the day what would it be?

MM: Challenge!


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