Real Voices interview: Peter Woolman

Meet Peter, who’s studying for a PhD in astrobiology. Here, he tells Calum Wiggins where he thinks we may find life on Mars and why he’d like to go to Jupiter’s moons

What do you do?

I study microorganisms called halophiles (meaning salt-lovers) that are found in a salt mine in Yorkshire.

Peter Woolman

Peter Woolman

What’s the aim of your research?

There may be similarities between halophiles and potential microorganisms that live or have gone extinct on Mars. Obviously, there aren’t any biologists on Mars and its difficult to carry out experiments remotely, so we’re looking at organisms that exist in Martian-like conditions on Earth. If I could find a way of detecting organisms (a biomarker) that could be used on Mars, it could be used to prove the presence of Martian life. The biomarker could take many different forms, for example distinctive chemicals that remain after the organism dies or changes to rocks that could only be caused by life.

What’s your favourite thing about studying your PhD?

That I get to tell people that I’m looking for life on Mars. People always find that interesting and exciting. I’m doing cutting-edge research that no one else has done before and it’s amazing to think that if I discover something, I would be the first to have done so.

Where on Mars might organisms live?

It’s unlikely that any organisms are alive on the surface, so my focus is on organisms that may be living quite deep underground. We don’t know much about the conditions underground on Mars because we mainly study it from orbit or the surface, but we think that the Martian subsurface may be similar to Earth’s. Organisms that live underground cannot use photosynthesis to make energy and instead they need to get energy from chemical reactions with the rocks around them (this is called chemolithoautotrophy).

Tell us more about the salt mine where you work.

The mine is 1.1 km deep, the deepest in Britain, and it houses a laboratory that studies various things from astrophysics (such as dark matter) to studies of geology, geophysics, climate, the environment, life on Earth and beyond. The life down there has been isolated from life on the surface for a very long time – which means the ecosystem is very different. There are biologists studying microbial life in the mine and testing out equipment that could be used to perform experiments on Mars in the future.

Did you always know you wanted to study astrobiology?

I’ve always been fascinated by space and so I’ve always been interested in astrobiology, but I wasn’t sure the opportunity would be available. It’s really exciting that I’m getting to study it now. I took all four sciences at A-level: biology, chemistry, maths and physics. I did molecular biology and genetics as my undergraduate degree, then a Master’s in developmental biology. I then worked in the biotech industry before starting my PhD.

What would your advice be for someone interested in studying astrobiology?

The best thing you can do is to try to acquire a range of scientific knowledge. It doesn’t just include biology, it also includes things like geology and chemistry. No one will know everything, but it’s really good to know something about a few different areas.

What are your plans for your future?

I want to continue doing research. I’d love to keep doing astrobiology, maybe working for a space agency to plan missions to other planets.

Would you consider going to space yourself?

It’s probably my dearest wish, but it would have to be on a mission planned by an organisation I could trust. Also, I think I’d like to be able to come home afterwards.

If you could go to any planet, which would it be and why?

Jupiter, to study its moons, because if there is extraterrestrial life in our solar system, that’s probably the most likely location.

If you weren’t studying an astrobiology PhD, what would be your dream job?

A science-fiction writer, but I’d also consider a career in IT.

Downloadable resources

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Space Biology’ in June 2015.

Microbiology, Ecology and environment, Careers
Space Biology
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development