By Dr. Darlene Lim, a geobiologist and limnologist at the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, SETI Institute, and Gail Jacobs
Dr. Darlene Lim’s research interests span Earth and Space Science. She conducts limnological and paleolimnological investigations of remote lakes and ponds in the Canadian High Arctic to characterize Holocene climate change. She has also extrapolated her Arctic work to Mars analog paleolake reconstructions. Darlene led the establishment of the Pavilion Lake Research Project in 2004 and has enjoyed managing and evolving the project ever since. She is also extremely interested in understanding the possible unique nature of Pavilion Lake through the exploration of near-by lakes and the regional geology. Over the past decade, Darlene conducted fieldwork in the Canadian High Arctic, the Antarctic, throughout Central America, Guyana, and northern Chile. She continues to ardently promote the importance of science and exploration through lectures, media outreach and editorial contributions.
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Darlene, please tell us what geobiologists and limnologists do.
In geobiology we look at the intersection and interplay between the lithosphere and the biosphere. Geobiologists look at those interactions in both a modern and a historical sense and then can even combine and extrapolate that information into a future tense. That’s what so cool about geobiology! It’s a real catch-all for the interplay between different disciplines. For me, that’s the crux of science – to make sure what we do is more united. Geobiologists can bring everything together and look at the world in a more holistic manner.
Limnology is a subset of geobiology and is specifically the study of fresh water systems. That can range from standing to moving bodies of water. My specialty in graduate school was working on water bodies in the Arctic in a holistic manner in terms of their response to rapid climate warming.
Briefly describe your research project.
I have a number of projects on which I’m currently working. I devote a lot of time working in British Columbia, Canada, on the Pavilion Lake Research Project. We’ve been operating and collecting water, not only from the surface but also from the subsurface with humans. We have divers in the water, folks in submersibles, and AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles) all working in tandem to gather the data we want.
In the summer of 2011, I’ll also be looking at Kelly Lake, a sister lake located near Pavilion Lake. Both lakes have large microbialites in them, which are rocks built by microbes. We’re going to take everything we’ve done and developed in terms of science operations at Pavilion and apply it towards our investigation of Kelly Lake. We’ve only done a bit of spot diving, but we have a strong sense that Kelly Lake is interesting too. They’re connected through ground water so we want to investigate what their differences and driving forces are. We know chemically they’re different but interestingly enough, both lakes contain microbialites. We want to develop a context for our understanding of what’s driving the development of microbialites.
I’ve also been working with another collaborator on Lago Sarmiento, a lake in Chile that has microbialites in it as well. I’m interested in studying and comparing these modern microbialites in lakes to gain an understanding of influences that would drive the development of certain types of shapes and sizes of these rocks that we find in the rock record. They are of interest in terms of the early Earth systems because stromatolites, which are microbialites, are basically the earliest macro-scale remnant of life that we have. You can look at these amazing structures historically, in the modern sense, and then into the future tense. That’s one reason I really enjoy working on these lakes.
Additionally, I have projects in which we look at different bodies of water in the high Arctic and the sub-Arctic. I have a long-term project collecting data in the North, which I’ve been working on for ten years now. I’m also working on another project in the low Arctic of Canada with SETI Institute scientist Alfonso Davila. That project involves looking at a really interesting site in terms of a Mars analog. More soon on this as we have a couple papers about to be submitted from our work on the Golden Deposit in the Northwest Territories of Canada. I work with a variety of folks on different projects who are studying life detection on other planets and how scientific operations could be carried out by humans on other planetary bodies. As well, I’m very interested in the development of human exploration architectures for the Moon, Near Earth Objects, and Mars. This has led me to plenty of new collaborators particularly at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
What can you tell us about micriobialites?
We think that the Pavilion Lake microbialites are formed primarily by photosynthetic bacteria. As a consequence of photosynthesis, the precipitation of calcium carbonate is enabled. This is a very common mineral. That precipitation generates a deposition or building up of this rock. Then there are influences, such as larger organisms, that drill down and try to burrow into it, looking for a place to live. These organisms and other environmental influences are what actually construct the shapes and sizes of these unusual structures that contain ridges and troughs and can resemble huge artichokes. They’re really very beautiful. Image: ¬©2006 Donnie Reid. Used with permission.
What is your particular role in the Pavilion Lake Research Project?
I’m the Principal Investigator, so I oversee all aspects of the project, including finding the funds to support our work. In the beginning, I was responsible for our accommodations, making sure enough boats were booked, and even making sure there was enough toilet paper for everyone. It’s wonderful that we now have a program manager to help manage the many aspects of this project. Now I spend much of my project time working with collaborators and ensuring that everyone is nicely integrated so that no one scoops another member of the program, which is seriously one of my scariest nightmare scenarios. It’s important we all work together in a friendly and collaborative environment. It’s like managing a family.
There were 8 of us when we began this project in 2004. In 2010, 83 people were physically at the site. There are also lots of collaborators who aren’t there at the same time or who help us with our samples from a different location. I would estimate hundreds of people have been a part of the Pavilion Lake Research Project. It’s a really cool place to work! We’ll go again in July 2011.
[Check out the video link at the end of this article!]
What is the opportunity that now presents itself?
The number one opportunity scientists are seeking is to study and explore these wondrous lakes with their treasure trove of diverse microbialites and to discover what we can learn about them, our resources, and our world. The structures we’ve studied in Pavilion Lake are amazingly cool! In a modern sense, these microbialites are generally found in extreme – such as very saline or alkaline – environments. Yet Pavilion Lake is not considered an extreme environment. In this absolutely beautiful and pristine Canadian lake where people vacation, boat, and snorkel, we find a totally different world beneath the lake’s surface with these gorgeous huge developments of microbialites. It’s as if you’ve been transported back through time to what Earth might have looked like in its earliest days. In some cases, some of the morphologies, or overall form, have never been documented anywhere else in the world. We have discovered that, in fact, there are certain properties in the lake that distinguish it from others in the area, but all of the chemistry is within Canadian inland water ranges. Image: ¬©2004 Donnie Reid. Used with permission
Some people come to Pavilion Lake to study it from an environmental science standpoint. They want to understand the changes over time. If people were to start dumping phosphate into the lake, for example, how would that affect the microbialites? Others are looking at the area from an astrobiology standpoint. Then there are the folks doing the molecular work on the bacteria living in the lake. They are there to satisfy pure scientific curiosity in terms of what is living in the lake and dominating the development of these microbialites. Those are opportunities presented from the scientific side.
Exploration is another driving force. They might seem like two forks in the road but they are highly intertwined. The way in which we go about collecting our science, interacting with the environment, and analyzing the data in the field in order to plan future traverses with our sub are all directly relevant to human exploration architecture. We select all the tools and technologies based upon guiding principles we’ve established for the project: they must be safe, environmentally friendly, and advance our science and exploration. We’ve had astronauts, engineers, and operations folks who are mainly interested in surface systems to help integrate science and help us move forward as a team in planning traverses across the lake. These technologies can result in broader uses than just those for which they may have been initially developed and may be instrumental in gathering knowledge that could benefit humanity.
What is the coolest thing about your project?
For me, it’s the people. Ironically, science can seem so disconnected from humanity; but it really isn’t. Science is at its best when it is connected to the human component. I get to work with so many motivated, interesting people. That’s what keeps me going. It can be a juggling act to manage that many people and also publish; so for me, the people are my motivation.
Do you have a favorite memory from an expedition?
I have had so many wonderful experiences in my travels, but I do have one special memory that made me feel so happy to be in science. In 2000, I was in the Arctic for my grad work. I was in a helicopter flying over Banks Island, which is very rich with flora and fauna. I had one of those rare moments in which I was transported to a scene in one of my favorite movies, Out of Africa. Anyone who has seen that movie probably remembers when Meryl Streep and Robert Redford were in the biplane flying over a lake and a large number of flamingos took to the skies. It was such a gorgeous shot! As I was in the helicopter en route to our research site, I looked down and there was a pond full of snow geese. As we flew over them, the snow geese spread their wings and ascended into the skies. I felt so calm and happy and I was filled with a sense of well being and knowledge that life was good. I realized what a great job I have! That is one of my nearest and dearest memories.
Why should the general public care about your research? In your opinion, what is the potential impact?
There are two aspects to my research that I hope people find relevant. One is the research I do on fresh water systems. As part of a team and also as an individual, I have looked at these fresh water systems from a very scientific standpoint in terms of understanding aspects of them to try and put them into bigger pictures. The crux of working on a fresh water system is to educate as many people as possible on the importance of these systems for our human health and well-being. People I encounter working in the Arctic are actively dealing with the effects of climate change in their daily lives and their well-being has been affected. Fresh water usage will be impacted around the world, given that the population is growing. Some fresh water systems are going to evaporate or at least be dramatically affected. California is certainly going to notice the effects of climate warming.
People can tend to view a lake as a recreational area or as something scenic to drive by, without giving the water much thought; but there are so many interesting and important interactions that occur in lakes. What I specifically love about the Pavilion Lake Research Project is this work has allowed me get underwater. In the marine sciences, a lot of study is done by humans working underwater, but rarely in limnology. Funny enough I worked on many lakes and ponds from the Arctic to the Antarctic without ever getting wet – Pavilion Lake was the first lake that I dove for research purposes, and I can definitely say that it broadened my perspective on the lake and my thoughts on the importance of putting humans right in the middle of the action, so to speak, even if that means putting them underwater. I would love to continue to do this type of underwater exploration using SCUBA and subs at other lakes around the world. And it would be great to use this research as a means to share the importance, beauty and wonder of lakes with the world. The marine sciences do a very good job of educating and enthralling people. I hope my research can, in some way, help do the same for limnology and, in the long run, demonstrate how this type of research is relevant to the general public.
Image: ¬©2008 Henry Borman. Used with permission.
The other important aspect of this work is exploration. Human exploration is so crucial because each time humans set forth to explore, there is an opportunity for us to reorganize ourselves. New information encourages us to revisit the way in which we establish the mechanisms for our geopolitical arenas. Exploration also helps us be more innovative. I’m so happy to contribute to the human exploration work that is going on now in NASA and the SETI Institute as well as other agencies. We need to expand our thinking beyond our Earthly environs or we’ll stagnate. We’re very lucky to have that opportunity.
How did you come to join the SETI Institute?
I was finishing up my Post-Doc with Chris McKay at NASA Ames in 2007 and there were so many great people to work with here. The SETI Institute was a great home for me, and everything came together nicely. It was a perfect transition.
What do you currently consider your biggest challenge?
Finding time to do as much as I’d like to do. I need to find time to read enough papers, keep up with my email, and make sure I have enough time for my kids and family, all the while keeping everything in balance with nothing falling short. I just wish I didn’t have to sleep. It would be so much easier!
With a 5-month-old daughter and a four-year-old son, how do you tackle work/life balance issues?
I’m not sure how well I do balancing everything. I think every mom experiences something different. I would love to have this conversation in 20 years. If my kids are well-adjusted, productive human beings who ideally still like me, and if I’ve done good things with my job and I’m happy and satisfied in that arena, then I’ll be able to definitely say yes, I did juggle successfully and I did find balance. On most days, all I do is keep moving forward and hope I’m doing all I can to provide work/life balance.
What are your thoughts on the latest NASA announcement regarding the discovery of life built with the toxic chemical arsenic?
The team conducted a lot of research and published their paper, which is a good thing because this process got data out into the open and now other scientists are afforded the chance to input, to test and re-examine their data, and that’s part of the scientific process. Their conclusions have resulted in some controversy, but controversy is just debate – it is dialog and that is healthy. I hope the dialog continues but always in a respectful fashion.
Despite the current controversy, one thing that I think is relevant to the public is that this interesting research was done at a well-known lake that lots of folks just drive by. Many times we feel we need to go to very extreme locations to look for interesting things to study. If some kids approached me to name somewhere cool to do science, I would suggest they go to their backyard. It sounds clich√©, but it’s actually not. So for better or worse, the fact that this research was done in our own Californian backyard makes it interesting and inspiring for aspiring scientists.
What first ignited your interest in science?
First, my parents were immigrants who moved from Singapore to Alberta, Canada, where I grew up. They really wanted to embrace their new country, which included an appreciation for the Canadian outdoors. They would take my sister and I camping a lot, and it was great. When we’d head to British Columbia, I’d get up before my parents did and go down to the seashore when the tide was out. I’d bring my dog and a camera and I’d just poke around and explore. It brought me so much joy! Interestingly, we spent a lot of time in Alberta and British Columbia, which is where I do much of my research now.
Second, coming from a household of working parents, I was also a “latchkey kid” and yes, I definitely spent my fair share of time in front of the TV. But at that time, there was some solid and accessible television programming, such as the Jacques Cousteau specials, and those were very impactful to me. I used to watch those a lot!
A third event that occurred later in my life was the undergrad course I took in limnology. I think I was 19 and I had no idea what limnology was when I came upon this class. Professor John Smol, who also ended up as my graduate supervisor for my Master’s degree, wrote this really interesting course description. I was at the point when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to focus on. Genetics seemed very interesting but I wasn’t sure if I had the right disposition for it. So I took this course in limnology and it was awesome! Professor Smol talked about lakes around the world. I keep remembering how I thought about lakes in such a simple manner, before I was drawn into this world. Lakes can help you see the world as it was, as it is now, and as it will be in the future. Professor Smol is a highly decorated and world-renown scientist, and he’s also a very kind and inspiring person. He made a really huge impact on my life.
What was your dream job as a child?
I wanted to explore! I didn’t know how that was going to manifest, but I thought it would be cool. I was very fortunate to have grown up in a place where I had the opportunity to explore. I was also fortunate to have parents who decided to embrace their environment in a number of different ways. Scholastically they pushed me, but they also wanted to give me more than just books. I had a very well-rounded life because of them. Of course, when I was 3, I wanted to be an airline stewardess and I took ballet classes, so I also wanted to be a ballerina. But the exploration dream was always front and center!
Used with permission.
If you were speaking to a group of teens about your career, what would you tell them?
I feel really fortunate to be a scientist. It’s an awesome job. And here’s the thing — if you’re in high school, thinking you’d love some idea of a high-flying, glam career that would let you travel to cool places, meet interesting people, and be in charge of large-scale projects, I don’t think you would have immediately thought, “hmm, I’ll be a scientist!”
For me, however, science fits the bill and then some! I get to work with great people. I travel all over the world. I’ve been to both the Arctic and the Antarctic, and I get to conduct science, explore and work on projects that are totally interesting. It’s an amazing career.
Used with permission.
How do you spend your free time?
Even though you don’t have unfettered time at this point in your life, do you try and find a way to give your children the same types of wonderful experiences you had growing up?
I generally try and separate my work life from my home life; but before I had my second child, I would take my son into the field with me whenever I could. I have a great support network with my husband and my mother, who would help watch him at the lake. My son has been in a sub, he talks to astronauts all the time – how cool is that! That’s a perk of the job. I hope those experiences are positive for my kids — I guess that’s what every mother wants. As they grow older, I have this wonderful dream of taking them to the Arctic with me and having them participate in collecting data. It would be fantastic! There was a time when families would include their children in field work; one example is the Cousteau family. I think the pendulum might be swinging back in that direction.
Is there someone you would like to swap roles with for a month’s time?
My kids! I always thought that the Freaky Friday body switching thing would be so awesome and a lot of fun! I’d love to be able to fully emphasize with my kids so I can know how to be a great mom to them. I know they are thinking such deep thoughts but that they are too young to fully articulate them. So I’d love to know what they’re thinking!
What is your philosophy of life?
Yoda once said, “Do… or do not. There is no try.” I love that! [Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back]
What contemporary or historic personalities do find interesting and why?
Generally, I’m intrigued by folks who feel very comfortable in their own skin and have made mistakes but seem to deal with and learn from them. Also, as a newly minted US citizen I’m quite fascinated with American political figures. It’s probably too simple for me to pick Bill Clinton, but he is particularly interesting to me because he presents a sense of intelligent ease. He can move through situations in a very fluid way. He seems to be able to talk to somebody off the street in a very empathetic and genuine manner, and then he’s simultaneously able to recite important and relevant statistics, facts and the like to the awaiting press. That is remarkable to me. I also think Arianna Huffington and J.K. Rowling are very cool personalities – their stories, their drive are incredible.
In a more historic sense, I have always found Jacques Cousteau to be very innovative and interesting. I would have loved to have met him. He made a huge and positive impact to my childhood and even to this day his passion for geoeducation and science inspire me.
What is your favorite vacation destination?
Anywhere! There are so many places I hope to visit someday. For now with the kids, I love Disneyland. When I was a child, my family did a lot of camping on the Pacific Rim side of Vancouver Island near Tofino. It continues to be a very special place to me.
If time wasn’t an issue, what would you still like to learn?
Hmm, where to start…Here’s a quick list of subjects I’d love to spend time with…needless to say, lots of different things fascinate me:
– Anything related to physics and geology
– Methane seeps
– Kung Fu
– Anything related to carbonates on Mars
– Improving my flight skills
– Fly fishing
– Tea Appreciation
– Surfing, surfing, surfing
– How to ride a horse
– How to sew (more than just a button on a shirt that is)
– How to knit (more than just a simple scarf that is)
– How to cook Singaporean stall foods
– Anything to do with submersibles
– American politics
– How to fix a car engine
– How to make Excel hum
– How to play the piano, …
Editor’s note: To see Darlene in action, check out the extremely cool video of Darlene piloting a Deepworker submersible, near the end of the footage. The upfront portion is Ian Hawes taking measurements of microbialites. Video shot by SETI Institute scientist Dale Andersen.