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Darlene Lim

NASA Ames Research Center
Moffett Field, CA

What is a geobiologist and what do you do?

I specialize in limnology (the study of lakes) and paleolimnology (the study of the history of lakes).  My doctoral research focused on the study and history of high arctic lakes and ponds as a tool for tracking the effects of climate and environmental change.  Fossilized freshwater algal remains of diatoms (class Bacillariophyceae), in particular, are used as bioindicators in our investigations of past physical and chemical limnic conditions.  During my graduate schooling I spent 4 summers in Nunavut, Canadian High Arctic conducting field studies across Banks, Cornwallis, Devon and Victoria islands.  My Ph.D field seasons included work at the NASA/SETI Haughton Mars Project base camp located near Haughton Crater, Devon Island, Nunavut.   Following the impact of a meteorite some 23 million years ago, Haughton Crater became a lake, and although the lake water has since disappeared, the sediment accumulated at the bottom of this ancient site still remains, providing a record of its evolution. As there may have been ancient crater lakes on Mars in its distant past, the NASA/SETI Haughton Mars Project was interested in the Mars analog potential of the Haughton Crater paleolake.  As such, part of my doctoral studies was also to explore this aspect of Haughton Crater using paleolimnological techniques.

Did you always want to be a scientist?

Aside from ballet, which I started at the age of 3, as a child I was very enamored with scientific exploration.  I was heavily influenced by many of the camping excursions that my parents took me on in Alberta where I grew up, by the many ecological books that my godfather sent me (and continues to send me), and by what I saw on the amazing Jacques Cousteau specials.  The latter, in particular, really made me want to explore the seas, and then as I grew older and learnt more about space exploration I was really drawn to that endeavor as well.  During my graduate schooling was when I was finally able to truly get involved with science and exploration projects that were both earth and space sciences based.  Needless to say I very much enjoyed my years at the University of Toronto!

How did you get involved in paleolimnology?

I majored in biology at Queen's University, however paleolimnological research is carried out under the umbrella of many earth sciences disciplines such as geology, biology, and geography.  At the University of Toronto, my Ph.D supervisor Dr. Marianne Douglas was located in the Department of Geology.  As such, through my graduate studies I was able to enroll in geology based courses.

Through my undergraduate years I really enjoyed the upper level biology courses that I took, as that was when we were able to go beyond the basics and start tackling more specialized subject areas.  Two courses that I learnt so much from in particular were field based courses that took me to Panama and Costa Rica.  I am so glad that I took those courses, as they were my first introduction to the joys of field work.  Of course, needless to say my most favorite course was the Limnology/Paleolimnology course I took at Queen's that was taught by Dr. John Smol!  It made a lasting impression on my life to say the least.  Dr. Smol was a great instructor and has since become a great mentor to me.  His course inspired me to enter the field of limnology and paleolimnology.

What were your favorite subjects in school?

I don't actually think that I had a favorite subject through elementary and junior high school.  I do remember having standout teachers in certain subjects through those years, however, in English, Math and Art.  Through high school, I remember really enjoying my History and Biology classes.  Once again, the teachers I had for those two subjects were what really made a difference to me.  They went beyond their job descriptions, making the classes interactive and enjoyable.  What's more, we always discussed topics pertinent to the curriculum but decidedly beyond the scope of what was required.  It was that sort of stimulation that I loved.

I also really enjoyed some of the electives that I took during undergrad.  In fact I wish that I had had the time to take more and highly recommend that all students try to broaden their course selection to include topics outside of their immediate interests.  In particular, it was invaluable for me to have enrolled in Spanish language classes.  I also really enjoyed some of the philosophy classes that I was able to take.

What were your least favorite or most difficult subjects?

I didn't do as well as I would have liked during my first couple of years of university.  However, it wasn't because the courses were particularly dull or terrible, but because I didn't have the proper focus I needed to get through my courses at the start of my undergraduate years.  This changed over the last 2 years of my time at Queen's University, as I knew that I wanted the marks and the knowledge under my belt to go on to graduate school.

What are the most rewarding aspects of being a scientist?

Being in the sciences is rewarding because I am constantly learning, being challenged, and exploring.  The potential to fill in knowledge gaps is also a very rewarding aspect of the job.  All in all, I love being in the sciences because it is filled with surprises.  I am especially happy to be a field researcher, since for me, being in the field is my most enjoyable and rewarding place to be.

What are the most difficult aspects about a career in your field?

I would have to say that the hours could be a killer.  You have to be prepared to put in some very long, and not too glamorous days, in a lab or in front of the computer.  This is just part of the work, and an absolute necessity, and the data that can be derived from these activities can yield some wonderful rewards.

Why build a Mars research station on Devon Island?  What were you doing on those research outings?  What have you learned?

Haughton Crater, Devon Island is a very interesting Mars analog site for various reasons, including its terrain.  As such, the NASA/SETI Haughton Mars Project was established at the crater in order to facilitate an international, multidisciplinary research effort to explore the analog potential of this extreme and unusual environment.

As I mentioned in an earlier question, I was carrying out limnological and paleolimnological studies with the NASA HMP at Haughton Crater.

The Mars Society also seized upon the opportunity to establish a base at Haughton Crater to simulate human missions to Mars.  During the summer of 2000, I took part in the establishment of the Mars Society's Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS), the world's first Mars simulation base.  I was fortunate to be part of the inaugural crew that inhabited the station in August 2000, and I took part in another crew assignment in FMARS over part of the 2001 season.

Through the simulations we tackled a variety of exploration based problems ranging from communications, to life support, to the architectural design of the habitat, and many other critical mission design elements.  Crew dynamics (as well as their overall well-being throughout the mission) truly makes the difference between a successful and failed simulation.  This point will of course be of critical importance once the first humans are selected to embark on an actual mission to Mars.

How is Haughton Crater like Gusev Crater or Hellas Basin?

Gusev Crater, in particular, may be the site of an ancient crater lake on Mars.  This is where the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is currently located and where it is carrying out geological exploration to determine whether or not this impact crater was in fact once filled with water.  Haughton Crater was once filled with water during the Miocene.  It was likely a deep lake that formed post-impact that could have supported a rich aquatic ecosystem.  In order to understand the evolution of this ancient lake, we have been examining its sediment remains which provide a historical record of this paleolake.  This involved coring the lakebed in order to retrieve the sediment samples, and then extensive laboratory analyses to uncover some of its historical secrets.  In the future, a coring mission on Mars could be mounted to drill into its ancient lakebeds in order to rebuild the planet's aquatic and environmental history.  This coring expedition may be better handled by a human mission to Mars, which would be a very exciting scientific and exploration endeavor.

Why do you think educational (science) outreach is important?

Educational outreach is the key to the future, which is why I think that it is so important for all academics to get out and speak to the general public about their research.  Through these activities the young may be inspired in ways they may never be through the regular educational system.  These youth are the key to perpetuating scientific research and progress, and as such it is our responsibility to encourage them.  Educational outreach also helps to establish a dialogue between researchers and the general public, which helps to disseminate scientific information, and demolish unfounded myths and claims about controversial areas of research.  Discussion and debate is the key to progress, and outreach programs can help promote this exchange of ideas and information.

Throughout my graduate schooling I gave dozens of youth and public talks every year about Mars exploration and/or Arctic climate change research, and took part in several discussion panels concerning these topic areas.  My outreach work has also included being a Metro Toronto Science Fair judge in 1998 and 1999, contributing articles to youth oriented publications including YES magazine, a national children's science publication, acting as the Scientist-In-Residence for the Canadian National Marsville Program (2000, 2002), and the G. L. Roberts Public School Environmental Program (1999-2002).

What's in store for you in the future?

More research!  Just now I am at NASA Ames Research Center in California, where I am in the midst of commencing post-doctoral studies with Dr. Chris McKay.  I will be continuing my limnological and paleolimnological work, only this time on highly alkaline lakes that may act as Mars analogs.

Would you encourage others to pursue a degree in geology?  Why?  What type of work might they be able to do as geologists?

Geology is such a wonderful scientific field.  It is the science of understanding the processes at work that govern our physical environment and that of other planets as well.  Geology is also a very integrative science.  Biology, chemistry, physics are all key components to geological research.  And no, as a geologist you are not required to work with hard rocks!  That is just one aspect of geology.  There are a myriad of incredibly engaging and exciting fields of research that fall under the 'Geology' banner and I would encourage all students (and parents!) to go online and have a look at the subjects that are covered by your local university geology department.  This will give you the best sense of what this field entails.

What do you see in the future of Canadian Mars exploration?

Our own mission. Canada has some incredible space and earth sciences expertise, and the Canadian Space Agency has begun to recognize the Canadian science community's interest and potential to build and support a mission to Mars.

Do you have any particular words of encouragement for students reading this interview?

Yes, if you are an undergrad, take that time to broaden your mind and enjoy your academic freedom.  Also, engage in as many extracurricular activities that your time can support.  Also, don't get too anxious about what comes next after school.  If you give yourself some time to breathe, you'll be sure to find your way.  If you are in graduate school, well, in fact my advice is no different.  (oh, and of course, to publish) :)

My philosophy is to just have fun... loads of it, both at work and at play.  If you are, you will look forward to your day and you will be better equipped to weather any storms that come your way.

Can you share a quote that inspires you?

Do or do not.  There is no try.
~ Yoda

[Darlene is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the NASA Ames Research Center (ARC), California.  She has a BSc.H. in Biology from Queen's University, an M.Sc from the University of Toronto, and just finished her Ph.D. in Environmental Geology at the Department of Geology, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.  In 2003, Darlene received the Graduate Student Award of Merit from the Senior Women Academic Administrators of Canada (SWAAC).]

- 5 March 2004


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Last Updated:
10 March 2004

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