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Posts Tagged ‘astrobiology’

Test site 1

Site 1 for testing biological soil crusts in the Mojave Desert

I’m in the Mojave Desert with a group of astrobiologists from NASA Ames, JPL, and the California State University system, along with student teachers in the Spaceward Bound program.

Planning samples-site 1

Rakesh Mogul, Chris McKay, and Parag Vaishampayan

Today, March 19, 2012 we officially began the main activity of this field research: collecting samples of biological soil crusts. We hope our research is on the cusp of crusty research . . . or something like that. We have two questions: First, what are the components and abundances of crusts in various locations; and second, what causes these crusts to change density from site to site? We discussed how to approach these questions on Sunday night and decided on an experimental procedure. Dr. Rakesh Mogul first led us in an activity on assigning planetary protection protocols to various types of space missions as a way of looking at the variables and possibilities of contamination. Then we got down to business on the study itself. We decided to sample three locations along Kelbaker Road, which heads east from Baker across the Mojave National Preserve to Kelso Depot. We brought with us sampling tools and equipment, including a field handheld ATP analyzer and collection tubes.

Photographing site 1

Photographing Site 1 location A

We collected after breakfast on a cool morning. The wind had calmed down from the night before and it looked to be a beautiful day as we loaded the vans and headed out. We stopped first at a site about five miles east of Baker which had been scouted out earlier. This site had an intermediate or average amount of biological soil crusts (BSC). Chris McKay described the general goals at each site, and Rakesh worked through the procedures as we divided up tasks.

We had several things we needed to do: First, locate an origin point with an average amount of soil crust and lay down a frame and grid aligned to the compass and its GPS coordinates recorded. Then we set up a vertical tripod and took photos of the location. All of this was to allow for determining the density of the crust – how many of the grid squares were covered.

Second, Rakesh and some of the teachers collected samples to test for ATP using a handheld analyzer. This wound up being a slow procedure and took some

Sampling ATP at site 1

Sampling ATP at Site 1

Third, Dr. Parag Vaishampayan of JPL collected samples near the grid, both of crust and non-crust areas, that we would use to extract the DNA and perform polymerase chain reaction (PCR) procedures to increase the DNA for testing (this would be done back at the Desert Station lab). We also collected soil samples to analyze chemically. At each location, we also sampled four other locations, each randomly selected using GPS coordinates in an array around the original location.

Collecting soil samples

Collecting soil samples at Site 1

With all this done and samples labeled and stored, we moved on down the road to the second site, this one with a dense growth of BSC. We ate lunch, then followed the same procedure to collect samples at five locations at the site. Since the crust was so dense, we had to be very careful not to step on any areas unless there was a wash or stream without crust.

Site 2 sample square

Sample grid at Site 2

Site 2 dense crust

Dense, mature soil crust at Site 2

We then loaded up again and travelled back through Baker to our third site about two miles west of town across the road from Silver Lake. Here, the soil was very poor in soil crusts – we found a few small spots about the size of a quarter coin, all surrounding small puddles where organic matter and water had ponded. The BSC was much lighter in color and much sparser. We followed the same procedures, setting up grids, collecting samples, testing ATP, etc.

Site 3

Site 3 near Baker, CA.

Collection site 2

Collection Site 2

By then the afternoon had worn on and it was time to head back to the Zzyzx station. As soon as we got there our math wizards started setting up statistical searches and crunching the numbers. Tomorrow we’ll do the laboratory tests and prepare the samples by extracting DNA, sorting the soil, and testing the soil chemistry. We hope our results will be worthy of publication in their own right, as well as point to future ideas and techniques for studying life on other planets.

Chris McKay at Site 3

Chris McKay at Site 3

ATP at site 3

ATP sampling at Site 3

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Philly from air

Flying in to Philly

I’m going to try the “instantaneous blog” style of posting today. I’m back in Philadelphia for the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) annual conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. I flew in yesterday from Salt Lake City and was met by a friend at the airport who drove me to another friend’s house where I will be staying (I have to do these things on the cheap, and saving over $100 per day on hotel fees is one way I could make this work). I’ve attended six sessions today, four of which have been excellent (as in useful for me professionally or for my project) and two that have been good but not quite as useful.

Philly City Hall

City Hall in Philadelphia

The first was on NASA’s Astrobiology program, presented by Pamela Harman of SETI (her office is just down the hall from the legendary Frank Drake of the Drake Equation) and Leah Bug, who was with NASA’s Explorer Schools program back when I was a facilitator for the program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She is now at Penn State, and I haven’t seen her since 2004, but it was good to catch up again. I attended because I love all things NASA and especially anything that might relate to the nearby stars and exoplanets, and even more so an interdisciplinary subject like astrobiology, which combines biology, evolution, astronomy, planetary science, and chemistry together.

Philly skyscrapers

Skyscrapers in Philadelphia

The second session was sponsored by ISTE (International Society of Technology Educators) about a school district that truly gets the idea of using technology to help students be creative. I talked with Ben Smith, one of the presenters, afterward and got his advice on how to sell this project to teachers and get the ball rolling. He’s found that having students be creative by building their own videos (on physics, chemistry, or other subjects he teaches), he has to teach content less than before since the students are taking the digital tools and expressing themselves creatively. They are engaged, and they learn the content they need on their own without him having to pour it into them through a lecture or some other ineffective technique. It takes standards of content rigor to make sure the students find out the depth of information they need, but it has been working. He gives them the tools, provides enough training to learn the basics of using them, then gives then a very open-ended topic (“Tell me about waves”) and lets the students run with it. And his test scores have gone up (always good to know).

The third session was in the Marriott by Gigi Naglak and Shelley Geehr of the Chemical Heritage Foundation to kick off their “It’s Elemental” video contest for students, where students (individuals and teams) will submit short (3-5 minute) videos on an element that they sign up for in advance. Videos will be judged in two rounds. Those making it to the final round will be judged by an august group of scientists and media specialists (including a Nobel chemistry winner) and the overall winners will receive a free trip to Philadelphia next spring, to coincide with the International Year of Chemistry. Gigi and Shelley asked me my recommendations last summer for how to kick off the contest and what the levels of equipment needed by teachers would be, and I hope to be able to help out more as they roll out the website this summer. I also hope to have some student groups submit their videos and win!

Exhibit Hall at NSTA

NSTA Exhibitors' Hall

The fourth session was by a coalition of teachers, media experts, scientists, and museum directors in Omaha called the Omaha Student Media Project, where a group of 16 students and 16 teachers attended a two-week workshop to learn video editing and science reporting skills, then created videos on viruses and infections and how they work. I talked quite a while with the museum person about how this coalition began and how they sold it to the school district and got media involvement. It’s given me some good ideas for how to sell my project and build a similar coalition in Utah.

I attended two other sessions on video podcasting and new media literacy, which gave me some good information but weren’t as useful as I would have liked. I will be going to a video program in about 20 minutes over at the Loews Hotel, so I need to sign off. I haven’t visited the exhibitors’ hall other than poking my head in and realizing I will need a plan of attack before attempting it. I hope to make some valuable contacts there. I’ll be presenting The Elements Unearthed project on Saturday at 9:30 in D-17. I’ll post again tomorrow.

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