Name: Dr Lewis Dartnell
Research institution: Space Research Centre, University of Leicester
Research career length: 9 years
Research Council: Currently by a UK Space Agency fellowship
Location: London, England
Brief summary of research: Looking into the possibility of bacterial life on Mars
A-levels: Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology
MA(Hons) in Biological Sciences, University of Oxford
MRes in Modelling Biological Complexity, University College London
PhD in Astrobiology, University College London
Postdoctoral research fellowship in Astrobiology, University College London
“I am an astrobiologist – a researcher looking into where life might exist beyond Earth”
Please give us a description of your job / research, and tell us what inspired you to do what you're doing...
I am an astrobiologist – a researcher looking into where life might exist beyond Earth. My particular research at the moment, at University College London, is into the possibility of microbial life surviving in the soils of Mars, a place where it's very cold and dry, and bathed in radiation from space. So what was it that made me want to go into searching for aliens?! Well, to be honest, it's something I've been utterly fascinated with since I was a wee lad, and so I jumped at the chance to organise a PhD in astrobiology for myself. After my first degree (in Biology) I was accepted into a new department at UCL, called CoMPLEX – a snazzy acronym for a real mouthful of a name (the 'Centre for Mathematics and Physics in the Life science and Experimental biology', since you ask…). This centre was set-up specifically to support interdisciplinary research and they fund all kinds of interesting research. So astrobiology it was!
How does your job or research contribute to the world we live in now?
My research in astrobiology is all about looking into the possibility of life surviving beyond the Earth. I think that if we do discover signs of extra-terrestrial life, perhaps microbes in the dusts of Mars or Dark Ocean of the moon Europa, it will be an absolutely revolutionary discovery, changing the way we see things around us. Discovering that life on Earth isn't alone in the Universe will be as important as realising that the world isn't flat. The technologies we're developing to explore other planets also have immediate benefits for us here on Earth, from lightweight equipment for diagnosing tuberculosis in Africa to robots used in earthquake rescues to disposing bombs.
Describe your typical day...
I've got a beautiful commute in the mornings – walking along the Regent's Canal towards UCL. But if I know I'll need to go elsewhere during the day, I'll brave the rush hour London traffic and ride my Steed (an old yellow racing bike) into the labs. First task of the day is always to catch up with emails on my laptop, cradling a cup of coffee. If there have been any recent news releases or interesting papers published, I'll hunt them down on the internet and have a skim read. The main meat of my research is into the effects of cosmic radiation on places where alien life might be found. I split my time between designing and running computer simulations of this energetic radiation, and getting my hands dirty doing bench work in a microbiology lab. My days are often nicely punctuated by meetings, seminars, or talks on interesting topics, and occasionally taking tutorials with students. Lunch always provides a welcome escape, a chance to catch up with university friends or talk through ideas. I do like to work a little later into the evening, and will generally leave the Department around 7 pm – perfect time for a cheeky pint or to head straight home for some dinner.
Do you have a 'pet project'?
Alongside my research, I find time for a lot of popular science writing. I write everything from short newspaper pieces to full magazine feature articles, and have also published a book, called 'Life in the Universe: A Beginner's Guide'. This is an introduction to the whole field of astrobiology, and I still get a massive kick every time I see it on the shelf in a bookshop. Not only does freelance writing bring in some handy pocket money, but I find it the perfect excuse for reading up on incredibly varied topics and allowing a more creative approach to science; retelling a fascinating story in everyday language. I've published articles on everything from how the leopard gets its spots to how NASA is hoping to generate artificial gravity on spaceships. My most recent project is gathering together all the background info I need to begin writing another popular science book.
What do you love most about science / engineering or maths?
The thing that always depressed me at school is that science isn't really about learning lists of names for things – it's about understanding the world around you and explaining how it all works. I love doing science because every day is like attacking a different puzzle. In terms of my job, astrobiology is an incredibly varied field of research, which means it can sometimes be frustrating feeling like you're always out on a limb trying to understand something completely different, but it's certainly always fascinating and exciting. There's loads of travel to conferences all over the world, and you can take some holiday time afterwards wherever you are. This winter I found myself discussing the origins of life in a Finnish sauna with a bunch of sweaty naked Professors !
What do you remember most from school science?
My favourite subject at school was Physics, but I saw the potential of Biology to become truly fascinating once you get to university and decided to study that for my degree. Now in my research I combine physics and biology, as well as mathematics and computer simulations! I still remember being at school learning about the theories of how the Universe might end in a Big Crunch – now completely discounted by more recent research!
What do you think is the most significant scientific / engineering / mathematical development in the last century?
To be honest, I can't think of many developments that have become crucial for my everyday life today that didn't happen in the last century: the plastics, computer chips, cars, planes, and radio that have made my life more comfortable and all the modern medicines and drugs that have saved my life every time I catch a lurgie or throw myself over the handlebars of my bike (which happens more often than you might think strictly necessary...). It'd seem so unfair to pick just one of them!
Name one quirky / crazy fact about your job...
Quirkier than spending my time looking for aliens...? Um, ok. At a conference I went to a few years back in Finland I found myself butt-naked with a bunch of sweaty Professors in a gloomy sauna, discussing the origins of life on Earth...
Where I live...
At the moment I'm living with a mate in Islington, North London. The house is slap bang in-between where I work at UCL and Upper Street with all its restaurants and bars… My ancestral home, if you like, is in Berkshire, where my parents still are. We moved all over the world during my childhood, however, and I've lived in Saudi, Kenya and Bahrain.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I find the popular science writing very relaxing, and also really satisfying once I've finished a piece and emailed it back to the editor. And call me middle-aged, but I do love having massive cook-ups at home with a crowd of friends, and spending an entire Sunday afternoon feeling over-full and gossiping with everyone...!
Extraterrestrial life, origin of life, space exploration
University College London
Writing, all things spacey, climbing, travel, cooking