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Otherworldly Investigations

Data from NASA’s Mars Exploration Program is helping Elisabeth Hausrath understand how soil and water might have once interacted on the surface of our solar system’s most-Earthlike neighbor.

Research  |  Apr 8, 2015  |  By Charles E. Reineke
Elsabeth Hausrath

Geoscience professor Elsabeth Hausrath (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

Editor's Note: 

This is part of a series on UNLV’s Faculty Opportunity Awards, which help innovative ideas blossom into full research program. The investment in our own faculty pays off as they are able to attract further funding from government agencies, foundations, or private industry.

Elisabeth (Libby) Hausrath grew up in the desert, a circumstance that made it easy for her to appreciate how water, our planet's most important chemical compound, profoundly affects even the most moisture-challenged of locales.

For Hausrath, now an assistant professor of geoscience at UNLV, that appreciation eventually led to a doctorate focused on aqueous geochemistry from Penn State. Because her studies there happened to coincide with the Mars Rover landing -- an event that proved the now desertous Red Planet may have once been wet -- she quite naturally began to think about slipping the surly bonds of Earth (figuratively) to conduct her research.

Today, due in part to her UNLV Faculty Opportunity Award, Hausrath is working to interpret data from NASA's Mars Exploration Program to investigate how soil and water might have once interacted on the surface of our solar system's most-Earthlike neighbor.

"My research program aims to better understand chemical weathering and soil formation on Earth and on Mars," she says. "The Mars Exploration Program results in increasing amounts of fascinating data from Mars. Our goal is to help interpret and understand these data and their implications for Mars as a potentially habitable planet."

Funding from the Faculty Opportunity Award, Hausrath says, was key to laying the scientific groundwork necessary for attracting the extramural support that such time-intensive research demands.

"In order to get larger, multi-year grants, it is really helpful to have preliminary data -- at least a few results showing that an idea is promising -- and that the proposed research approach is appropriate," she says. She currently has two multi-year proposals pending with NASA resulting from the FOA award and is very hopeful that they will be funded.

The internal award has also allowed her to publish more widely in her field and to more fully support students working in her laboratory.

One particularly fruitful area for Hausrath and her team involves analyses of clay minerals. Because these minerals -- also known as hydrous aluminium phyllosilicates -- form in the presence of water, they are of intense interest to scientists studying habitability.

UNLV Soil Sciences Professor Libby Hausrath poses in her lab"Our research on transitions in clay-mineral chemistry, particularly the work of Ph.D. student Seth Gainey and master's student Michael Steiner, is yielding fascinating results that may help us better interpret the potential habitability of clay-mineral-containing Martian environments," Hausrath says. "This project is providing new insights that could lead to further studies conducted at UNLV or other institutions."

Her work has implications closer to home as well, she adds, ticking off a list of investigations that have also generated enthusiasm among the funding agencies supporting her work.

"I am part of a group that recently received funding from NASA EPSCoR to look at snow dynamics," says Hausrath. "My part of this will be to examine interactions between microorganisms and minerals in the nutrient-poor environment present on glaciers, which may also be an analog to Mars. I am interested in impacts of minerals, particularly phosphate minerals, on prebiotic chemistry."

She and her former doctoral student Chris Adcock recently published a paper in Nature Geoscience examining phosphate release from minerals important on Mars, which has implications for the possible origin and persistence of life on Mars.

"My current Ph.D. student Courtney Bartlett and I will be continuing work on these projects, and I'm excited to be expanding both of these parts of my research program."