Alumni Spotlight Fall 2018 – Elena Amador

To showcase the career opportunities for UWAB graduates, UWAB grad student Stephen Sholes sat down with UWAB Alumna Dr. Elena Amador to ask her some questions.  Elena is now a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech working on research relevant to NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 mission.


Who are you and when did you graduate from UW?

I am Elena Amador and graduated from UW with a dual-title PhD in Earth and Space Sciences and Astrobiology in Winter 2017.

Where are you and what are you working on now?

I’m currently working as a post-doctoral scholar in Caltech’s Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences. My time is spent investigating three main projects. The first is studying the abundance, diversity, and distribution of carbonate minerals on Mars. Currently, surface exposures of carbonates account for only a small percentage of secondary phases detected on the surface of Mars, this lack of carbonate exposures may have implications for the evolution of the Martian climate, as carbonate should form readily under a thick CO2 rich atmosphere and surface water. I am also formally involved with the Mars 2020 science team to characterize the remaining potential landing sites for the future rover (NE Syrtis, JezeroCrater, and the Columbia Hills). This mission has hefty objectives- land in a once habitable environment, look for biosignatures, and cache samples for a future Mars sample return mission – so it’s important that wherever we land, we are confident we can achieve these objectives. Additionally, I am a Co-I on a PSTAR grant working with colleagues at Georgia Tech and JPL studying how biodiversity varies over basaltic plains in Iceland and which field and lab instruments are most useful in understanding this biological variability with implications for future rover sampling on a planet like Mars.

How is your current research related to astrobiology?

All my science is directly related to astrobiology. I consistently tap into all the UW Astrobiology classes that I took when thinking about how to assess past habitability of potential Mars 2020 landing sites, for example.

How does the habitat or life change the environment during deposition? What kind of biosignatures would be preserved that we can remotely detect with the mission? These are the big astrobiology questions we are trying to prepare to answer.

Astrobiology is a large motivator for my other research projects as well. For example, the implications of my carbonate project might allude to subsurface environments having been more stable for life during early Mars history rather than surface environments. As Mars researchers, we are pretty sure there were some habitable environments on Mars in the past, but we don’t know if they were inhabited. What signs would we look for in the remote sensing data, and with the surface measurements made by rovers and landers?

What is a normal day like in your line of work?

When I’m at Caltech, a typical day involves starting at my computer, writing code to process spacecraft imagery. Most of it is remote sensing, so I am thinking of new ways to look at the data, compare thousands of images to best interpret the compositional signatures in the data. I also spend a lot of time on telecons, collaborating and discussing results with colleagues at different institutions. We each have a piece of the puzzle and are trying to figure out how to put everyone’s pieces together to tackle these overarching interdisciplinary problems.

A particularly fun part of my job is when I get to go out into the field to collect sample and analog measurements. When my team is in Iceland, we get to explore unusual landscapes and test instruments that may one day fly on future missions to other planetary bodies.

What did you research in grad school as a UWAB student?

I did much of the same type of research that I’m doing now. At UW, I was just starting to learn how to use planetary data sets; how to combine complementary but different spectral sets to identify new information. I spent a long time thinking about specific mineral markers that imply habitability, like serpentine, and how we can use that to back out specific geochemical environments.

In your opinion, what’s one of the most amazing things about astrobiology?

Oh that’s easy – just how interdisciplinary it is! It’s amazing how I can sit in on a lecture about biochemistry, microbiology, geology, oceanography, etc., and be able to follow along and put it into the context of my own research. I can also talk with these other researchers whose expertise are in very different fields than mine and we can collaborate on these big picture questions. I don’t feel intimidated about asking questions outside my field, since my astrobiology training has given me enough context to feel confident working with all these great people. This also opens up opportunities to go to lots of cool places around the world.

How has your experience at UWAB prepared you for what you are doing today?

The UWAB experience was critical to what I’m doing today which is planetary science through the lens of astrobiology. I had to have that basis of chemistry, biology, geochemistry, and astronomy that I got through the program to get to where I am now. It also allowed me to learn to be a better speaker and present interdisciplinary work to me peers and non-experts. The available networking through the colloquia and graduate student peers also opened up lots of room for current and future collaborations.

-Interview conducted by Steven Sholes (ESS)