Profiles of Notable New Mexico Geologists
Penelope (Penny) Boston :
Dr. Penelope Boston plunged into the wonders of exobiology at a very young age. She grew up travelling the world with parents who were travelling performers, frequently delves into deep caves to do research, has worked with Dr. Carl Sagan on a project and serves on several scientific advisory panels with Dr. Frank Drake, studies both Earth’s subsurface microbiology and the possibility of life in caves on Mars, can speak Klingon, and is a notable New Mexico Speleologist, Microbiologist, and Astrobiologist. A current professor at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, author of over 150 publications, and co-founder of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute and organizer of multiple conferences, Dr. Boston has devoted her career to teaching and understanding overlapping scientific disciplines. Despite being told by many people that studying so many different subjects would be hurtful to her career opportunities, she studies everything that she loves and has developed a successful career for herself.
Dr. Boston’s childhood was not a traditional one. She was the only child of a theatrical family that travelled all over the world to perform. “I kind of grew up as a nomad,” she said. Dr. Boston’s education was dealt with in any way that it could be. She had the opportunity to attend schools all over the world including her parents’ home countries (United Kingdom and France), Italy, Sweden, Africa, Australia, Asia, and everywhere else her parents travelled. She was also tutored when one or the other of her parents was in a production that travelled for a long period of time. After finally settling in Florida, she grew tired of public school because she was used to travelling. Dr. Boston was offered the National Merit Scholarship after placing very highly on her SAT exam, but the award was put on hold after she stopped attending high school. She attended St. Petersburg Junior College for college-level classes for credit for a year while she decided what to do. To this day, she hasn’t focused on just one field. “I couldn’t decide, and ultimately, I never did. I just ended up sort of creating my own career” Dr. Boston states.
Dr. Boston tested into the Faculty Scholars Program at Florida Atlantic University. This program allowed her to skip some of the tedious introductory courses. Dr. Boston achieved such high scores on her ACT and SAT and the in-house testing for FAU that she tested into FAU at the junior level. She attended FAU as a biology major with a geology minor until she became ill in her final year and a half. Dr. Boston was diagnosed with Grave’s Disease, a very aggressive form of hypothyroidism, and the warm, humid, tropical climate of Florida irritated her illness. She withdrew from FAU so that she could get her health together.
Dr. Boston eventually transferred to University of Colorado at Boulder, a much cooler and drier climate that would not aggravate her hypothyroidism. She acquired a job at the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado. She also completed her remaining credit hours and added a minor in psychology. By the end of her undergraduate career, Dr. Boston had attained degrees in Microbiology, Geology, and Psychology, plus she had enough credit hours for a double degree in philosophy if she wanted it. “When you go to college at sixteen you have a lot of time, and I was in no hurry,” Dr. Boston said. Her National Merit Scholarship kicked in, and she also received a small portion of money for part of the tuition because of her illness. She had money of her own that she used to make sure that she could take more than the normal amount of credit hours and did not have to rush through school. Dr. Boston attended the University of Colorado, Boulder for her master’s and doctoral degrees while on an Advanced Studies Program Fellowship from the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Dr. Boston has investigated the mysteries of microbial life in the lab and in the field throughout her entire career. The longest theme throughout Dr. Boston’s entire career has been exotic microorganisms in extreme environments. One of her main research interests is studying subsurface microbiology. Currently, she is collaborating closely with a group on lava tubes and the microorganisms that inhabit those rock surfaces. They are trying to answer questions about what these microorganisms are doing to the underlying bedrock of the lava tubes. They also want to know what species these microorganisms are and what kind of chemical compounds they might be producing. Some of them produce antibiotic compounds and enzymes that may be of great value for pharmaceutical and industrial uses.
Early in Earth’s history, it was a very different planet than it is today, and the metabolisms of the various subsurface microorganisms that exist in extreme underground conditions may give insight into the kinds of microorganisms that lived on the Earth millions of years ago. Dr. Boston hopes that these microorganisms can give clues about what the earliest microorganisms may have been like. She descends into caves herself to sample in these extreme environments.
“We were completely unprepared, and Lechuguilla is one of the toughest caves in the world,” says Dr. Boston about the first cave that she explored. The first time she ventured in to check out the microorganisms, she travelled to Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico. Her group had never caved before, and she and her colleagues trained for three hours before going into the cave for five days. “We got the crap beat out of us,” she said. While exploring the cave, she suffered severe dehydration, a busted ankle, bruises, hypothermia, and a blob of goo that fell from the cave ceiling into her eye, causing severe swelling and infection. The blob of goo, however, was a clue, and she hypothesized that she was seeing soil processes that weren’t undergoing weathering. After twenty years of working on the microorganisms, she found her hypothesis to be correct. What she was seeing down in that cave were microbial pedogenic processes in an environment without bad weather or running water. Despite her first caving trip being tough and dangerous, Dr. Boston decided that she had to pursue this area of study, and she learned to safely cave and has been caving ever since.
Dr. Boston says that there are applications for this kind of work on other planets such as Mars. The environment of Mars is hostile and Dr. Boston says that “it is an excruciatingly difficult environment to imagine our kind of aqueous, carbon life tolerating that.” Mars has a thin atmosphere, an aggressive corrosive and oxidizing surface chemistry, extreme desiccation, and ionizing radiation (Galactic Cosmic Rays and solar storms) that pummels the surface. Mars has no protective magnetic field like Earth’s Van Allen Belts, no ozone to filter out short wavelength ultraviolet, and no magnetic fields. Also, Mars has extreme temperature excursions (mostly in the cold direction) because it is farther from the Sun and has a very thin atmosphere (less than 1/100th of the density of Earth’s atmosphere). Things looked grim for the possibility of surface life existing on Mars, but Dr. Boston, along with colleagues were grappling with the Mars life situation and developed the idea of delving into the subsurface of the planet to explore what might live there. “This was at a time when[…] we were just beginning to become aware that there may be an indigenous subsurface microbiota about which we knew nothing right here on Earth,” Dr. Boston explained.
Dr. Boston also collaborates with colleagues from New Mexico State University and Goddard Space Flight Center on the development of an instrument that can detect both organic materials and mineral materials at low-power with relative speed. The instrument, which detects a very broad spectrum of targets, can be placed aboard a landed mission to a planetary body and can select the most promising samples for analysis. Such an instrument would determine ideal samples more efficiently before sending out bigger machinery.
Dr. Boston’s team, along with Dr. Michelle Creech-Eakman from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and Dr. Mark Swain and colleagues at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is characterizing the atmospheric chemistry and properties of exoplanets’ atmospheres of exoplanets. These exoplanets, distant planetary objects orbiting other stars, are being discovered left and right. Currently, the field is transitioning from just analyzing the exoplanets with astronomical techniques to attempting to characterize them as actual planets. “Planets are central to my thinking both about the extreme microbiology and astrobiology aspects, and also in terms of planets as objects in the galaxy and in fact the universe,” Dr. Boston says.
Dr. Boston has so many interests spanning across multiple fields of science including biology, geology, chemistry, astronomy, physics, and others. She sees clearly the overlaps among these fields and makes connections that other people may not see. “To me, the interesting things are always at these intersections,” Dr. Boston says, “They are very fertile.” When she studied at University of Colorado, Boulder, these subjects were separated by strict disciplinary walls. There was a dawning awareness that people should be dabbling in more than one subject, but many opposed this idea. Norman Horowitz, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, lectured Dr. Boston when she was a student, telling her that doing more than one thing was so bad and so dangerous because no one would ever take her seriously. According to Horowitz, people would look down on Dr. Boston as just a dilettante. Fortunately, she ignored him completely and went on to do great things working in the intersections of science.
Throughout her career, Dr. Boston has been able to work with people in all different fields and from all over the world, including Dr. Carl Sagan and Dr. Frank Drake. Dr. Boston was heavily influenced by these two especially when she was younger and long before she worked with them. As a child, Dr. Boston frequently read My Weekly Reader, an educational periodical introducing young readers to news and current events. When she was seven or eight years old, she read an article about Dr. Drake and what is known as the Drake Equation, which is an elegant equation that attempts to quantify the probability of finding intelligent life in the galaxy. The same newspaper featured Dr. Sagan’s work on what was then known as exobiology. “I was already a science fiction reader, and that really captured my attention,” Boston says “When I went to college, I met both of these people at various meetings and that really focused my attention.”
Other people have influenced Dr. Boston as well. Her adventurous parents influenced her life, as travelling all over the world “was very empowering for a kid growing up in the sixties.” Other people also influenced her directly in one way or another. During her graduate years, she spent time with Lynn Margulis, a notable scientist associated with the Gaia hypothesis, and the two worked together on a project before Margulis passed away in 2011. “She was a very free thinker, and her ideas impacted me greatly,” Boston says, “she was a huge influence.” Dr. Joel Levine, a planetary scientist who specializes in atmospheres and spent his career at NASA Langley Research Center, was another huge influence. “He has been a major contributor to my thinking,” Dr. Boston said. She worked a NASA National Research Council post-doc with him in the eighties after finishing her PhD. Dr. Steve Schneider, one of the world’s leading climatologists, is yet another of Dr. Boston’s influences. She worked with him as a graduate student on an advanced study program fellowship at the National Center for Atmospheric Research on Gaia Hypothesis ideas, and over the years, they have convened two major conferences and edited two conference proceedings together. She also worked with him, Dr. Carl Sagan, and a number of other ecology and climate scientists in the late 1980s and early 1990s on the environmental consequences of nuclear war. Further notable influences include Helen Vishniac, a mycologist working on astrobiological projects; Dr. Willy Segal, a microbiologist who worked on tuberculosis and sulfur organisms in soils; her friend and colleague Chris McKay; and her advisor from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Dr. Ralph Cicerone (now President of the National Academy of Sciences).
Dr. Boston’s students say that she is a wonderful advisor to work with, and she cares about all of her students. They say she is very good at teaching the secrets of succeeding in academia. “She has such a strong presence that commands respect,” one undergraduate student says, “You know immediately when she starts lecturing that she knows so much and is such a brilliant person.” Another undergraduate student from Dr. Boston’s Geobiology class says that Dr. Boston is “a great professor that is a fountain of knowledge, and one of the sweetest professors [she has] ever had because Dr. Boston will go out of her way to help you if you need it.”
Dr. Boston said that students studying science just need to really love what they are doing, because if they do not, they will end up miserable. For herself, the love of her fields of research “[hang] together by this fundamental curiosity about the origin and evolution of life in the universe.” Dr. Boston will go on to inspire those students that she teaches and will continue to make tremendous contributions to science, both out in space and down here on Earth.
Earth Science, Geology, Biogeochemistry, Geomicrobiology, Speleology
Mars, extremophiles, cave, karst, astrobiology, speleology, life on Mars, caves on Mars, robots on Mars