Thursday, February 23, 2006

Send Those Women To Mars!

The Mars Society of San Diego recently presented a talk by three female Mars researchers. Shannon Rupert, Kathryn Bywaters, and Melinda Capes were the speakers. They spoke about their experiences doing Mars analog research at the Mars Society's research stations.

Gerry Williams started the evening with a multimedia presentation about the San Diego chapter and the goals of the Mars Society.

Rupert spoke next. She is a biologist who teaches at a San Diego college. She explained that exploring Mars is important for several reasons. For society in general it will help us to understand whether we are alone in the universe and will lead to technological advances. Exploring Mars will also be inspirational much as Apollo inspired millions around the world. And Mars exploration will help scientists to understand more about the Red Planet.

But we haven't sent people across space to Mars yet so we must do our research here on Earth. That is done through analog research, which is research here on Earth at Mars-like environments, such as the Utah desert, the Canadian Arctic, and Australia. Rupert has the singular distinction of having done Mars analog research in all three of those locations. She has been a crew member and commander. She has served on international crews, coed crews, and an all-female crew.

Rupert said she enjoys doing research at the Mars Society's research stations. She was a veteran of biological field research before she began doing Mars analog research. The difference between the two is that in typical field research she works alone or with other scientists in her field; in Mars analog research, on the other hand, she never works alone and her companions are scientists in other fields, engineers, and others. She said she learns more working with others with different skills than she does working alone or only with other biologists.

Capes spoke next. She is a student of Rupert's. She has been a scientist on a crew at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah where she studied microbial diversity in the soil at the site much as scientists on Mars might do looking for life. Her research revealed there were a variety of organisms living in the soils around the MDRS.
Bywaters had just returned from doing research on extremophiles known as halephilic microorganisms (salt loving little buggers) at the MDRS in Utah. Scientists trying to find life to study on Mars will be on the lookout for extremophiles because the environment out there is so harsh to life as we understand it. The halephilic microorganisms show how life adapts to living in extreme environments. They have adapted by developing a salt lining on their cells which helps protect their interiors from the salty environment they live in.
The talks were followed by a question and answer session. The scientists were asked about crew dynamics. The optimum crew size for the research stations appears to be five. Four is not enough to keep up with the work. But having six or more crew results in having one or more crew members who tend to become isolated from the others.

As for the dynamics between men and women on crews, with mixed crews there is a tendency for leadership challenges and some conflict. For a mixed crew where there are more men than women, all the speakers agreed that there should be at least two women, for the sake of the women on the crew. The all-female crew worked very smoothly together as a team with little or no conflict. Williams chimed in on this topic that his experience on an all-male crew was the same.

Harmony isn't everything.

The women spoke at San Diego's Women's History Museum before an audience of about 20 people. Read more about the Mars Society of San Diego (here), the Mars Society (here), Mars analog research (here), and the all-female crew at MDRS (here).

-tdr


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