Mary Beth Wilhelm planetary science & astrobiology PhD Student, NSF Graduate Fellow & NASA Civil Servant

Mary Beth Wilhelm

Research Interests

Preservations of Biomarkers in Mars Analog Environments

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program has previously emphasized understanding habitability in ancient terrains with the Curiosity Rover. The new Mars 2020 Rover has recently been proposed to “seek the signs of life.” Both have the capability to detect organic biomarkers. Characterizing the preservation of biomarkers in Mars analog environments is both timely and crucial to elucidating potential targets for future exploration and to interpreting data being collected on the surface of Mars today.

My PhD thesis focuses on studying how biomarkers are degraded under Mars-relevant physical and chemical conditions. The Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the oldest and driest deserts on Earth and is an excellent terrestrial analog for the moisture conditions and soil chemistry occurring on the surface of Mars. Soil samples were collected with depth in the hyper-arid core of the Atacama in the summer of 2014. I have extracted and analyzed lipid biomarkers in these ~15 Ma old soils to understand how lipids are preserved and degraded under extreme hyper-arid conditions over geologic timescales. This work is conducted in collaboration with the Summons Lab at MIT, the Planetary Environments Laboratory at NASA Goddard, and the Jahnke Lab at NASA Ames.

Additionally, I am a science team collaborator on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument focusing on laboratory analog Evolved Gas Analysis. I also work with remote sensing data (images and spectra) from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.