April 16, 2014  

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NASA Grant Allows Southern Miss Professor to Conduct Mars Simulation

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University of Southern Mississippi Assistant Professor of Marine Science Scott Milroy conducts field tests in the Gulf of Mexico. (Submitted photo)

What do Antarctica and Mars have in common? Turns out, just enough to suit University of Southern Mississippi marine science Assistant Professor Scott Milroy.

Thanks to a NASA-funded research grant, Milroy is embarking on a year-long project that includes an attempt to grow a form of blue-green algae – known as cyanobacteria – in incubation chambers at the Stennis Space Center. Milroy hopes to mimic conditions that exist on the surface of Mars.

“Cyanobacteria are thought to be the first organisms to have evolved the capability to photosynthesize and there are species which are capable of growing in the low light and frigid conditions in Antarctica,” said Milroy. “That seemed a wonderful start. If such organisms could survive such harsh conditions here on Earth, might they be able to survive the harsh growing conditions on Mars?”

Milroy, who came to Southern Miss in 2007, is quick to point out that his research seeks to show that life “can exist on Mars,” not that it does or ever did.

His experiment is one of five university projects nationwide that NASA is funding with $863,000 collectively ($278,000 to Southern Miss) that provide hands-on science and engineering opportunities to high school students. Experiments proposed in two of the projects will eventually be flown on the International Space Station.

And exactly how does Milroy intend to simulate conditions on Mars? He notes that private U.S. companies manufacture lighted, low-temperature incubation chambers ideal for this type of research. Among the other laboratory criteria:

  • Temperatures maintained just above freezing to simulate the Martian surface
  • Simulate the Martian day/night cycle and Martian summer (a period when Mars will be the “warmest” with the greatest light intensities and duration)
  • Simulate the low pressures of the Martian atmosphere, as well as the proper chemical mixture of gases in the air

“Fortunately, the many varied NASA missions to Mars have provided atmospheric and soil chemistry details to scientists here on Earth, so we now have the knowledge base to be able to conduct a series of experiments like this and have confidence that they represent the true conditions of Mars,” said Milroy.

The project will also include assistance from two graduate students. However, the primary benefactors will be three classrooms of high school students (45-60 total) and their teachers who will be full partners in the design and implementation of the various experiments.

Former Southern Miss professor and current South Alabama mathematics Professor Julie Cwikla will lead the educational initiative associated with the project. Bay High School and St. Stanlislaus High School (both in Bay St. Louis, Miss.) will participate and a third school will be selected soon.

“Our vision is to provide curriculum and initial lectures, such that I shall visit the classrooms to provide lectures and activities for the students and their teachers – training them in the basics of the Martian conditions, the fundamentals of photosynthesis and cyanobacteria biology,” said Milroy. “We will then conduct a number of research ‘workshops’ with these students and their teachers to brainstorm on the actual experimental conditions and methodologies we will test.”

Milroy says a project of this nature serves to highlight the research potential of Southern Miss and demonstrate how the university can leverage the multidisciplinary expertise of its researchers and broaden a commitment to expanding educational opportunities for future scientists in Mississippi and beyond.

When originally submitting the grant idea, Milroy saw the project as a “high risk-high reward” proposal. Now armed with the necessary funding, he hopes this type of research will spur similar engagements.

“This project represents a new paradigm for research partnerships,” said Milroy. “Meaning that researchers – and funding agencies – should look for unorthodox ways to collaborate on projects which represent a new way to look at what is possible in the realm of scientific research.”

For more information about this project and the Department of Marine Science at Southern Miss, call 228.688.3177 or visit: http://www.usm.edu/marine