Alumni Profile

UF Geology Alumnus Shares His View on Life Since the "Life on Mars" Discovery

Chris Romanek, a UF geology graduate and member of the "Life on Mars" research team, holds a vial containing ALH84001 - a sample of the meteorite from Mars, Alan Hills 84001. The meteorite was found in Antarctica in 1983. Researchers believe it fell to Earth about 13,000 years ago. Romanek became involved with the research because of a chance encounter with the meteorite at the Johnson Space Center in Houston while working on a two-year postdoctoral fellowship. He now works at the Advanced Analytical Center for Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Lab.

The following is an editorial written by Chris Romanek ('85 Geology). It first appeared in the August 18, 1996 edition of the Augusta Chronicle.

One week ago today the path of my professional career took a turn, or let's say it changed course from the pleasant country back road onto a busy super highway. This was not a direction that I had planned to travel nor one I wish to maintain for very long. Last Wednesday, in Washington D.C., a group of fellow researchers and myself were introduced to the world as the scientific team that uncovered potential evidence for the existence of fossilized life on Mars.

Having worked on this project for the past two-and-one-half years, I guess I became jaded as to the significance of the subject matter or maybe I just underestimated the true curiosity and enthusiasm for scientific discovery that people share. If so, I apologize for this lack of understanding.

Over the last twenty years or so, only a relatively small group of scientists have been interested in my research endeavors. And now suddenly, the research of our team has become a focal point for academic and public discussion. Toward this end I must reiterate a statement that our team has maintained since this news story broke. We have not, and I repeat with emphasis, not discovered life on Mars. We have merely documented a series of observations from a piece of Martian rock that, when taken as a whole, can be interpreted as the result of ancient biologic activity on or within the surface of Mars.

A fortuitous set of circumstances surround my being part of this research team. Dr. David Mittlefehldt, the research scientist who first identified the Martian origin of this meteorite, was working directly across the hall from our Johnson Space Center Laboratory, and he called me over to look at some mineral grains he thought I might be interested in studying. Being informed at that very moment that these regions existed within a new Martian meteorite, I immediately asked for material to analyze. Eventually researchers at NASA, the Open University in England, and myself used this material to document the extra-terrestrial origin and temperature of formation for these strange-looking regions. From here, we performed the first acid-etching experiments on the surfaces of these regions, and eventually observed the textural, chemical, mineralogical, and organic evidence for potential biologic "activity" we reported in the August 16th edition of Science magazine.

The scientific process that has been my research guidebook, and to which President Clinton and NASA administrator Daniel Goldin referred in the opening statements of the press conference in D.C., will ultimately be the arbiter concerning the validity of our interpretations. And whether we are right or wrong makes little difference at this point. Our larger purpose is to offer these findings to the public and scientific community for scrutiny. The scientific process will nurture additional scientific research in the future which will hone or replace our interpretations with more likely or plausible scenarios of how these simple structures came to exist in this most unusual Martian meteorite.

For now, I only wish to thank those individuals that helped bring our research to fruition, particularly my friends and colleagues at NASA, McGill and Stanford University, Kathie Thomas-Keprta, Hojatollah Vali, Everett Gibson, Dave McKay, Simon Clemett and Richard Zare for their time, patience and effort in the construction of our thesis. Most of all though, I would like to thank the American public for the enthusiasm and excitement they have generated and shared with the world concerning the potential for life, however minute or different, on planetary bodies other than our own. For now, the true test begins, that being an answer to the long-asked question, "Is there truly life - past or present on Mars?"

Christopher S. Romanek

Education:
Ph.D. Geology, 1991, Texas A&M
M.S. Geology, 1985, Universityof Florida
B.S. Geology, 1982, Furman University

Employment: Assistant Research Scientist, Advanced Analytical Center for Environmental Sciences, Savannah River Ecology Lab

On the value of his UF education: "I first learned the techniques used to study meteorites and how to interpret the results while I was at UF. Things I learned there I carry with me - the basic fundamentals that I'm still utilizing today."

On his latest research: "I hope our research will show kids that this is what scientists can do, that they can learn worthwhile things and make important contributions."