Research (UK Space Agency)

Careers research space

Dr Lewis Dartnell – research (UK Space Agency)

What is your current job title?

I'm a Research Fellow funded by the UK Space Agency for my research in astrobiology and the search for life beyond Earth.

What organisation do you work for?

I'm at the University of Leicester.

What qualifications do you have?

I have a BA in Biological Sciences, an MRes in Modelling Biological Complexity and a PhD in Astrobiology.

What got you interested in microbiology?

I've always been interested in science and biology, but it was during my lecture courses as an undergraduate that I really started getting into microbiology and molecular biology. My PhD at UCL involved a lot of work culturing 'extremophile' bacteria surviving the very harsh conditions in the Dry Valleys in Antarctica, considered to be one of the most Mars-like places on Earth. I then tested the survival limits of these ultra-hardy microbes, and in particular against radiation, to assess how long microbial life on Mars might be able to survive the cosmic rays that penetrate through the surface of the planet.

What is your present occupation - what is it you do?

After my PhD, I've been focusing more on not how long microbes themselves could survive in the Martian surface, but how long the signs or evidence of their existence remain for. The next generations of Mars rovers will not try to culture Martian bacteria (like the Viking landers in the 1970s attempted) but will carry very sensitive instruments designed to detect signs of past or present life, called 'biosignatures'. But the big question is, how long do these biosignatures persist in the cosmic radiation on the surface of Mars?

Can you describe a typical working day?

I live in London but work in the labs in Leicester so the start and end of my day is a long train ride, but I find this alone-time without distractions really useful for catching up on reading scientific papers or on my emails. When you're working in research, your day can be pretty varied. I might spend some time analysing some new samples I've got in using the instruments in the lab, or planning the next radiation experiment, or preparing and writing lectures, or peer-reviewing papers that other scientists have submitted to the journal that I edit. All the PhDs and post-docs in the research group get together for lunch, and this is always a great opportunity to catch up on everyone's gossip and what we got up to on the weekend.

What do you like most/least about your job?

I really enjoy the thrill of taking the first look at a new sample or experiment to see what you've got. And it's always hugely satisfying when a paper is published - a body of work that might have taken you six months to complete. But on the flip-side, even if you're part of a good, dynamic research group, you can still find yourself working on your own for hours at a time.

What are the most important skills you need to do your job?

Contrary to what you might think, you need to be very creative to be good at science – to think about the best way to test a particular effect and rule out other possibilities, and then to make sense of curious findings. There's also a lot of analysis, of course, when it comes to processing data and perhaps calculating statistics. And I have done a fair bit of computer programming to model what the radiation on Mars is like or to analyse large objects.

Is there anything you wish someone had told you about the job before you started?

Yes! Don't worry when things go wrong. Everyone has microbial cultures that refuse to grow at first, or experiments that foul up or need to be repeated a few times, and you shouldn't let it get you down. And if anything, many of the most interesting discoveries come out of experiments that haven't gone as expected, or even from downright mistakes! Things rarely work first time, and a good scientists is one who knows this and perserveres.

Image: Thinkstock/Johan Swanepoel