Listening for SETI: A Research Adventure
SETI student Vicente Gonzaga at the Allen Telescope Array in Northern California.
Credit: Ben Ou-Yang/SETI

A flash.

Then complete darkness.

I swerve wildly on my rickety bike, skidding on a soaked, winding path, squeezing my eyes shut and opening them in an attempt to get my eyesight back.? Just when I regain my bearings (but not quite my eyesight), a sharp crack! throws me off my seat.? I land awkwardly and stumble as the two dogs (Peach and Jasmine) scurry away to avoid me.?

Another flash sends them back up against my pant legs.? They?re shivering ? fear?? Cold?? Probably both; thunderstorms aren?t exactly great experiences for most non-humans, or most humans for that matter.? Me, though - half blind and soaking wet, from the brim of my new baseball hat to the socks in my shoes?? I allow myself a smile and continue my journey on foot to the Allen Telescope Array (ATA).? It?s what I deserve, really, for leaving the SETI truck there.

Besides, I had research to do.

Granted, not every day in the 2009 SETI Institute Astrobiology Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program is a rainy, thunder-strewn stroll on the twisted path to the ATA--even for me, though that was my designated project site for the summer.? For most of us, a typical day starts off with a breezy bike ride to the SETI Institute or the NASA Ames Research Center after a shower and breakfast.? At the office, we sit down, maybe pour ourselves some tea or coffee, then get cracking on multivariable inverse trig integrals, running Mars images through geographic systems software, or observing data sent from the Cassini spacecraft for spectroscopic lines that may indicate the presence of organic molecules on Enceladus, Saturn?s 6th largest moon.

After a break for ping pong, we?re back for another few hours of inverse trig integrals, or observing the comparative desiccation resistance in two strains of Halorubrum chaoviator (an archaeal halophile ? a single-celled salt loving microorganism).? At the end of the day, it?s a bike ride back to our quarters under a setting sun.? We wind down by reading a good book, studying for GREs, internet surfing, working out, or conducting a little more research on our laptops ? just for good measure.

In essence, it?s your typical undergrad summer for science students.? While only one of us ever had to walk a mile in thunder and rain with wet dogs (they?re actually very adorable and friendly) just to take that last measurement using the ATA?s hardware, you can safely bet that any of the other students in REU program would have gone to similar lengths for their projects. It?s been an awesome and unforgettable summer.?

Actually, that doesn?t do this summer justice.? We?ve learned and learned and learned some more ? from our projects, our mentors, even each other.? While we may not be experts at the end of this program in our respective fields, we?re definitely off to a good start.

Take, for example, our trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park during the program?s third week.? We?re crunching along a lush hillside meadow when we stumble upon a crystal-clear bedrock stream trickling through the grass, just a few inches wide.? Dr. Rocco Mancinelli (one of our tour guides for that week, and also one of the SETI Institute?s leading scientists on microbial life) stops, excitedly whips out a digital thermometer and several strips of litmus paper, and dips them into the water.

Meanwhile we students are kind of exchanging bewildered glances.

Then he stands back up, one hand clutching a strip of litmus paper right up against the sun, the other a color reference table, and he shouts, ?HA!? 65 degrees Celsius and somewhere between 3 to 4 pH!? Looks like we have Cyanidium caldarium on our hands here.?? Then he plunges into this lecture about warm, acidic streams and the microbial communities that thrive in them.? We?re still exchanging glances, albeit with a little more panic and bewilderment because our past impressions of miniature hillside streams are now gone.? Out the window.? Replaced by steaming acid microbe-ridden tides of death.

Later that same week, we stumbled across something a little less mind-shattering but arguably worse. Ben Ou-Yang describes the site of Dr. Mancinelli?s next field lecture in the video sidebar.

His empirical observations are solid.? Bubbling.? Boiling.? Smelly. Dr. Mancinelli soon clarified that this was a sulfuric acid mud geyser (sulfur spring for short):? pH1, exceeding 93 to 95 degrees Celsius given our 7000ft elevation, and teeming with microbial life.? We later went on to explore the park and found watermelon snow.? It?s very beautiful stuff with streaks of bright, almost fluorescent red like brushstrokes on snow.? Chlamydomonas, a psychrophilic (cold-loving) organism, causes this watermelon effect.? It?s actually a green algae.

You should?ve seen Erin Lynch (Dr. Mancinelli?s REU student for this year?s program) when she caught me poking at the watermelon snow.

Me: *jumps* ?Huh?? What?? Nothing.?
Erin: ?Are you TOUCHING it??
Me: *pokes the snow again* ?Well, yeah-?
Erin: ?NO! STOP! YOU?RE KILLING IT!? They?re psychrophiles ? they need cold temperatures to SURVIVE.? Your finger is robbing them of their ideal temperature!?
Me: ?OH CRAP.?? *starts piling snow on top of touched area* ?Okay, maybe I can make them cold again??
Erin: ?Annnnd now you?re blocking their sunlight.? They?re green algae ? they need to photosynthesize.?

A little bit of my childhood was shattered (especially in terms of miniature hillside streams and how I was committing genocide with my finger), but I learned a valuable lesson. What we as human beings may intuitively consider as ?livable conditions? have their limits.? Dr. Rocco Mancinelli?s studies and observations show that life can thrive in even extreme conditions ? whether in the depths of glaciers, nearly devoid of warmth and sunlight, or in the scalding heat of sulfuric acid mud geysers.? This implies that the lush rainforests of the Amazon and our sprawling human cities are not the only environments where life may thrive ? Dr. Mancinelli?s nature-edition lectures, taken with various talks hosted by the SETI Institute, have presented compelling arguments for life outside of Earth.? Cold, icy Enceladus, and overheated Venus begin looking more and more appropriate as hosts for extraterrestrial life.

Again, we?re not experts, but we?re off to a good start. The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco has a planetarium exhibit where viewers are taken through a panoramic, digital tour through the solar system and beyond.? Imagine our smirks when the presentation reached Venus, and when our digital host claimed matter-of-factly ?Venus? hot temperatures make it an unlikely candidate for hosting life.?? Nope, Ms. Recorded Voice, not quite ? not the way you postulated it.? Heat alone ? or in combination with an acidic environment, or in exceedingly cold temperatures without convenient access to a primary source of energy such as sunlight ? is no longer a conclusive barrier to life development.? Unlikely, yes, but it wouldn?t have hurt to give Venus a little more credit.

Anyway, thanks, Dr. Mancinelli.? And he?s just one of the mentors and scientists here at the SETI REU 2009 Program who has taught us to see the universe around us in new ways, regardless of our backgrounds.

We?re a group of university undergraduates from all over the nation, studying under this generation?s scientist A-team of planetary and extraterrestrial life scientists.? We constructed circuits and stuck extremely sensitive, expensive equipment inside giant metal chambers (well, I did), we used imaging software to map planetary surfaces, we wrote hundreds of lines of code, we stared at spectroscopic lines for signs of organic molecules, played ping pong, biked around Mountain View with reckless disdain for traffic laws and common sense.? In short, we worked as astrobiologists this summer. We contributed to the expansion of planetary science, and we aided in the search for extraterrestrial life. And we all get to put this on our resumes..

Granted, this kind of summer isn?t for everyone.? Not every undergraduate student enjoys summers spent on cutting-edge research with top tier scientists, and some people don?t dig weekend trips to San Francisco or free food at the SETI Institute and the NASA Ames Research Center.? And yes, they dragged us, screaming and kicking, to Lassen Volcanic National Park, where a handful of us climbed a 10,000 ft active volcano amidst snowy slopes and learned in the process.

If this sounds like your thing, SETI has a 2010 program lined up for next year.? Keep an eye out for it!? Applications will open in December. Those of us lucky enough to be selected for SETI Institute?s 2009 Astrobiology REU Program will forever remember this summer experience.