Life on the Edge: Adventures of an Extremophilic Scientist

Darlene Lim


If life can thrive in the most hostile regions here on Earth, could it exist even on Mars? Researchers are scouring the most extreme environments in our world to answer this question. Canadian paleogeologist Darlene Lim (pictured left) is at the front line.

Currently a postdoc at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, Lim conducts biogeological research in some of the hottest, coldest, and most barren settings on Earth--regions that are believed to resemble environments on Mars. Her passion for exploring these desolate areas is driven by her desire to explore the unknown, and her enjoyment of the challenges, hardships, and risks of conducting science at the ends of the planet.

"I am always looking for that sense of discovery, that constant feeling of exploration, and the opportunity to be outside in environments that are new and challenging," says Lim.

Tantalizing Clues

Starting her second year at NASA Ames, Lim works with noted NASA astrogeologist Chris McKay, traveling to far-flung places that have a direct connection to environments on the Red Planet. Her field of study, known as Mars Analog Research, requires her to spend weeks on end in such isolated spots as Devon Island in the high Canadian Arctic and the Atacama Desert in the high Andes Mountains of Chile.

Devon Island is located at the 75 degree latitude, sandwiched between Baffin Island and the Arctic Ocean. Filled with glacial and geological features, including a massive 20 km impact crater, Devon Island even looks like Mars. Meanwhile on the other side of the planet, the Atacama Desert, near the Pacific coast of Chile, ranks as one of the driest places in the world; some parts have not seen any rain in more than 400 years. The combination of dryness and ultraviolet radiation from the high elevation makes it an environment hostile to life; in places the soil appears to be completely sterile, very much like what we think Mars is like. "We can't go to Mars yet," notes Lim, "but what we can do is go around the Earth and look for places that offer us an ability to extrapolate some of the data that we are finding."

Recent missions to Mars have provided tantalizing clues that water once flowed on the desolate planet's surface, and it still may still run underground. Evidence from orbiters also indicates that the same carbonate cycles we see on earth should also have existed on early Mars. This is why, Lim says, her paleolimnological work at Devon, Atacama, and elsewhere is particularly relevant to planetary scientists. "On Mars, there's a whole Nancy Drew mystery as to where did all the carbonates go?"

Coming Together

Growing up in wilds of Alberta, Lim developed her affinity for nature early. "My parents were immigrants to Canada, and they really embraced the new environment that they had [found] for their kids," she recalls. "As far back as I can remember, we were out camping, and hiking, and doing a lot of outdoor activities while growing up in Alberta."

Lim got her first taste of extreme science when she joined a team of Arctic environmental researchers while doing her Masters degree in 1997 at University of Toronto. "It spoke to me at so many different levels--going outside, going to the Arctic, and doing this kind of research--I just loved it."

Spending many nights under a canopy of star-filled skies, she also developed an interest for outer space--the ultimate of extreme environments. While finishing her Masters and looking for a Ph.D. topic, she gave in to the "space geek" inside her, and attended a Mars Society conference in Colorado. The Mars Society is a nonprofit group dedicated to the exploration and settlement of Mars. The conference was a pivotal moment for her. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Not only were they talking about how to get to Mars, but what you might do when you get there," she remembers.

Devon Island's Haughton Crater at Midnight

The conference hooked her on the idea of doing environmental research relevant to Mars, and it was there that she met the organizers of a Mars Analog Arctic Research station that was being set up on Devon Island. Lim credits finding her career path to meeting the right people at the right time. "They were looking for someone with my skill set that wasn't afraid to go to the Arctic." The last part--the lack of fear--was as important as the first. It's not easy finding someone who loves working in desolate and isolated environments. According to Lim, most people wouldn't feel comfortable in the conditions she often works in.

Tough Times

To stay on top of the game, Lim believes that the most important trait for any individual considering doing field work is the ability to remain flexible and calm, especially when working in inhospitable climates.

But even the calmest and most flexible people are likely to be affected by the conditions. Weather, for example, is always a confounding issue, says Lim. It impacts both logistics and scheduling and, Lim warns, it can really weigh a person down physically and emotionally. "Here in the city, if it rains all the time, you can at least go indoors. But when you're working in the Arctic, or the Antarctic, where it is just bitterly cold or the rain is just non-stop, you're limited from going in and out of tents, and you can't have a shower and have nowhere to get dry--that can really weigh on you."

But passion isn't enough to get the research done; good science also requires something else: duct tape. Under extreme conditions, the nuts and bolts of research are also challenging. Organization is key to getting meaningful data while staying safe. "You also have to think about all the various permutations that could happen should something go wrong," she adds. "You just can't run to the store or call Fischer Scientific and say you forgot a beaker. You have to be incredibly organized before you go into the field." Still, inevitably mistakes are made. Lim and her team have been saved by duct tape more than once.

Scientific and survival training in Antarctica

Working on the edge has been a rewarding experience for Lim. Whenever she heads out into the field she can't help but feel a magical kinship with the outdoors. "When I'm standing at the edge of the crater and it's midnight in July in the Arctic, and the sun rays are coming down and bouncing off the crater, making it light up and sparkle, I just think -- this is the most fantastic job that I could ever have hoped for, and I'm the luckiest person alive."

For more information on Darlene Lim's research check out the project's Web site.

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at