Area High School Students to Plan Mars Study for International Space Station

Long Beach, MS—As part of a study entitled “PIONEERING MARS: Turning the red planet green with the earth’s smallest settlers,” high school students from Mobile, Ala., and Bay St. Louis, Miss., will attend the first in a series of workshops at the University of Southern Mississippi’s (USM) Gulf Coast Campus on Monday, December 10. The students, their teachers, and university researchers will plan experiments to determine whether cyanobacteria from Antarctica could grow in a Martian environment. Some of the experiments designed by the students will be replicated by NASA scientists on the International Space Station, tentatively scheduled for October 2013.

Dr. Scott Milroy, Assistant Professor of Marine Science at USM, explains, “Cyanobacteria are microscopic algae thought to be some of the most important terraformers of the Earth’s ancient atmosphere, enriching it with oxygen and transforming it into the breathable atmosphere we know today. Is it possible to do the same to Mars? In this project, we are not trying to demonstrate whether life existed on Mars in the past, but the possibility that we might be able to seed it with life transplanted from Earth.”

NASA funded Dr. Milroy and Dr. Julie Cwikla, Director of the University of South Alabama’s Center for Integrative Studies in Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (CISSTEM), to develop a curriculum that would engage high school students to answer these questions. The two are working with students from Mobile County Schools’ Baker and Davidson High Schools and Bay High and St. Stanislaus College in Mississippi not as mere observers, but as true research partners in the project.

Mars is a very hostile environment by Earth standards, with Antarctica being the closest match in terms of the Martian climate. If cyanobacteria can thrive in the extreme conditions in Antarctica, perhaps they will be able to tolerate the similarly harsh climate of Mars. The students will only need to establish “proof of concept”—is life on Mars possible?—to be successful in this venture.

Dr. Milroy delivered three preparatory classroom lectures at their schools to give the students adequate scientific background, in addition to their regular classroom studies. On December 10, from 9-2 at the USM Gulf Coast Fleming Education Center (FEC), the students will work with Milroy, Cwikla, and their classroom teachers to devise specific plans for testing the hypothesis. In early 2013, dates TBD, the students will perform their experiments in Milroy’s Gulf Coast Campus research lab using USM’s state-of-the-art equipment in the brand new $10+ million dollar science building. The students will present their findings to NASA for assessment at the Stennis Spring Conference.

Dr. Cwikla says, “Obviously we are all very interested in the possibility of proving life could exist on Mars. But to involve high school students in the process, to have them design experiments for NASA scientists to conduct on the International Space Station—I’m not sure that’s ever been done before. If our goal is to get more young Americans thinking about science as a career, we would be hard pressed to find a more engaging project. These kids are excited, and—speaking as an educator—it’s really fun to watch.”

For more information about the PIONEERING MARS project, please contact Tara Skelton at 228.327.5284 or, Julie Cwikla at 228.547.6547 or, or Scott Milroy at 228.332.6293 or