Megan Smith [EMAIL]

Graduate Student, Earth & Space Sciences
University of Washington

Research Expertise: photochemistry

VPL Focus: Task B: Earth through Time

Hi! I'm a third year graduate student in the department of Earth and Space Sciences (ESS) at the University of Washington. My primary research interest is the geochemical and atmospheric evolution of terrestrial planets, and my adviser is Prof. David Catling.
My current work focuses on understanding the formation of perchlorate salts on Mars (discovered by NASA's Phoenix lander in 2008, and probably discovered once again by NASA's Mars Science Laboratory in 2012). The primary question we wish to answer is: where did the perchlorate on Mars come from? Perchlorate is interesting for several reasons, including that the salts are highly hygroscopic and may be partially responsible for the presence of liquid brines on Mars today. In anoxic environments on Earth, perchlorate can be reduced by microorganisms, so perhaps there was a time on Mars when life used perchlorate as food (this is purely my own speculation, though). Stay tuned to the scientific literature, as our results are likely to be published in 2013.
The next project I will be embarking upon will be focused on geochemical modeling of the second rise of oxygen on Earth. This event occurred approximately 0.8 billion years ago, and it is highly enigmatic. We believe it is crucial to understand this event because it is only after this point in time that the Earth became habitable to macroscopic life like ourselves. If we can pinpoint how this second rise of oxygen occurred, we will be further along the path to understanding what drives the oxygenation of a planet. As astrobiologists, our goal is to understand the past, present, and future habitability of our universe, so this is a necessary effort, indeed.
In addition to my research interests, I am also interested in Education and Public Outreach. Astrobiology is a great vehicle to get people engaged in science. Astrobiologists use hard science to understand far-reaching questions that spark the interest of almost everyone on the planet, including "Are we alone in the universe?" and "Where did we come from?". I've recently been helping a group of elementary school students in Maryland with their unit on Mars, and it's been a great treat!