The romance of exploring life on Mars

Sasha Wilson – Geologist

Ex-NASA geochemist Sasha Wilson is a dedicated prober of planets, studying terrestrial surfaces to find the secrets of life.

But despite her knowledge of the microbial life on Mars, Sasha has never actually held a fragment from Mars which, at its closest, is 56 million kilometres away. In fact no one has held a sample from Mars because none have been delivered to Earth.

Low-temperature geochemists like Sasha are able to analyse such detail thanks to “robotic geoscientists” better known as the Mars Exploration Rovers on the surface of the red planet. These three robots have made important discoveries about wet environments on Mars that may support microbial life. And while she says it will be decades before humans can travel to Mars, Sasha has no intention of applying. “I get sick just going on a kid’s carnival ride,” she says.

The closest she and colleagues have come to handling any sort of substance from Mars has been found in meteorites. And Monash is home to one of the best meteorite spotters around. “My colleague Andy Tomkins has a fridge full of them. He is so talented at focusing-in on them with his excellent eyesight!”

Sasha was educated in Ontario and came to Monash via an education in physics and geochemistry in Canada and the US. “I discovered I really loved Earth sciences with the chance to work outside and to concentrate on environment-relevant problems.

“It’s very important to me for my work to have a positive environmental impact.”

As well as studying how minerals can provide the nutrients required for life, Sasha has another great interest. She and her students are studying how to remediate waste produced by the mining industry – both destroying hazardous waste or adding value to it – with the ultimate goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Sasha and two students recently travelled to an abandoned contaminated mining site outside Tamworth to investigate carbon sequestration. “The students were pretty excited about wearing moon suits on site – it was very funny.”

Other field trips involve salt lakes in Victoria (for their similarity to the wet environments on Mars) and South Australia’s Coorong lagoon.

Sasha appreciates “a unique level of camaraderie” amongst Monash staff and that her students are so keen and focused. “I love teaching here and taking students around Australia, beyond the bounds of the campus.”

As her students discover the many similarities between the surfaces of Earth and Mars by wading in lakes and delving into the contents of meteors, Sasha continues to share her love of “the romance of studying another planet”.

While she could be known around campus as a ‘rock star’ from NASA, she keeps a low profile, preferring to help her students organise work experience trips to NASA’s Astrobiology Institute in Indiana.

Sasha has a lot of fieldwork planned for her students based at Monash. “I’m looking forward to tromping about marshes and acid lakes this year…and it exfoliates your skin rather nicely, too.”

It’s very important to me for my work to have a positive environmental impact.