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Extreme Science

Senior takes curiosity to NASA's Mars project

At Dartmouth, people may know Eve Russell '05 as a varsity soccer player, a talented musician, a psychological and brain sciences major, a member of the Delta Delta Delta sorority and a generally bright and enthusiastic campus presence. They may not recognize her, though, as a NASA scientist.

Eve Russell
Eve Russell '05 worked at NASA testing "extremophiles" to see if they could weather a trip to Mars. (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Last winter, Russell worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, part of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., - a place she called "a Mecca for academic excellence and brainpower consolidated" - experimenting on a class of microbes called "extremophiles." Her research led to a presentation at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC), and at the sixth annual American Society of Microbiology conference, and from there, the possibility of another NASA project.

"I was taking Engines 5, and part of that course talks about space medicine," Russell said. "I got really excited and ended up calling home really enthusiastically. I started researching possible internships with NASA."

Once at NASA she began researching the sterility of spacecraft.

Spacecrafts, including the Mars Rovers, are assembled in the lab's "clean rooms," areas of high sterility, to prevent contamination by Earth's microbial vermin. The NASA Standard Assay is a measure of the level of sterility to which spacecraft assembly facilities are held. While at the lab, Russell was given a collection of assays that had been swabbed from the external surfaces of a spacecraft and its assembly facility and was asked to analyze those samples.  The earthly microbes, some as small as two nanometers in diameter  - a 10 billionth the diameter of penny - she then tested. She used radical levels of heat, cold, radiation and dryness to simulate the extreme conditions found in space and on other planets. Some microbes survived.

"If they survived the trip, they could contaminate Mars," she said.

They are thus tabbed "extremophiles," named for their resistance to extreme situations. If an extremophile were to contaminate Mars, it would irrevocably change the planet's ecosystem before humans have begun to understand it. Conversely, extremophiles from space could contaminate Earth and humans would be unable to kill them with the technology available, including radical levels of heat, cold, radiation and dryness. At the end of Russell's 10 weeks at the lab, she gave a presentation to a group of NASA scientists and urged them to reevaluate their sterilization methods.

"She's gone way beyond the curriculum that Dartmouth offers to find a unique scholarly opportunity, and done  what I'd like to see all Dartmouth students do, to leave their stamp of creativity."

- Lee Witters

Back at Dartmouth last spring, Russell shared her research with Lee Witters. The Eugene W. Leonard 1921 Professor of Medicine and Biochemistry at Dartmouth Medical School (DMS) and Professor of Biological Sciences at the College, Witters first met Russell during her freshman year. She came into Dartmouth with the ambition to be a doctor and has known Witters first as a pre-med advisor, then as a professor.

"She really created the (NASA) opportunity for herself," Witters said. "It indicates that if a student sets her mind to it and networks, there are so many opportunities. For the most part, it requires student initiative to find these really interesting things."

He encouraged her to bring her NASA presentation to DHMC last spring, and again in the fall, to a meeting of the American Society of Microbiology in Maryland. Following her presentation at DHMC, Russell was approached by Jay Buckey, Research Associate Professor of Medicine at DMS and astronaut on the 1998 space shuttle Columbia. He proposed putting together a team of students to submit an experiment proposal to NASA.

Russell, Abigail Davidson '05, Lauren Edgar '07, and Jennifer Tonneson '06 are waiting to hear from NASA about producing the project.

If accepted, they will have a chance to ride on NASA's KC-135, an airplane that dives through the air with such speed as to create 30-second segments of weightlessness, simulating space travel. If approved in December, the team will conduct the experiment in July.

 "I am anxious to see the proposal accepted," Russell said, "We are all waiting with fingers crossed until December."

Next year, Russell plans to work in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and with Witters' help apply to medical school; she said she hopes to become a physician.

She said her most exciting prospect is the next NASA project.

"It is not every day that undergrads, with no space flight training, get to experience zero gravity," Russell said.

Witters said he sees in Russell a quality important for any successful undergraduate.

"She's gone way beyond the curriculum that Dartmouth offers to find a unique scholarly opportunity, and done  what I'd like to see all Dartmouth students do," Witters said, "to leave their stamp of creativity."

By SAMANTHA FOX '08

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08