Unlike many planetary scientists, my career journey did not begin when I was a little kid looking up at the night sky. I actually wanted to be a doctor* until I was in high school, when I naively attempted a duplication of the Miller-Urey origin-of-life experiment, produced “inconclusive" results, and won second place in the local science fair. This inspired me to enter college as a biochemistry major to further learn about how life arose on Earth.
It was also my first foray into the field of astrobiology. Let me be clear—astrobiology is not about the biology of aliens! Rather, it is a legitimate area of study in which specialists from diverse fields such as molecular biology, astrophysics, organic chemistry, microbiology, geology, and more tackle the topic of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the Universe.
My path detoured after just one semester at college when I took a geology course and fell in love. I quickly switched my major to the flexible “interdisciplinary science” degree, which enabled me to take classes in all the sciences while having a concentration in geology and minor in astrobiology. A summer internship at the SETI Institute made me realize I could combine my interests in geology and astrobiology via planetary geology, the study of the surfaces and interiors of planetary bodies in our solar system.
Through planetary geology, we can begin to address the question of what makes planets habitable for life, even if the life is just cellular (like bacteria). This is actually a very complex issue. I believe the most challenging aspect is that we don’t even know how to define life on Earth. For example, are viruses alive? Unclear.
In grad school, I focused on on planetary geochemistry while taking astrobiology-related classes outside my specialty and attending interdisciplinary meetings with astrobiologists from all over the world. While my current work doesn't relate to astrobiology, it remains a topic about which I am deeply curious.
*Strictly speaking, I am a doctor, but in the words of a friend, “not the kind who helps people.” Yes, he’s still my friend.