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Red Bluff's Astrobiology Student Intern Program

03/25/2015 07:41AM ● By Laura Christman

Mixing It Up

April 2015
Story and photos by Laura Christman

Red Bluff has a connection to the Red Planet. Students at Red Bluff High School are researching how life on Earth relates to ancient times on Mars. Lassen Volcanic National Park is their lab and NASA scientists are their teachers.

A mix of chemistry and curiosity, the Astrobiology Student Intern Program is the only NASA astrobiology program for high school students in the nation. It began in 2008 and is a partnership between the space agency, Red Bluff High and Lassen Park.

“It’s so cool. I go to the high school that does this,” participant Christina Zumalt says.
Astrobiology is the study of life in the universe. Lassen Park, with bubbling, steaming thermal areas, offers hints of life conditions that might have existed on Mars.

“We see environments on Mars that we think were very much like environments at Lassen,” says David Des Marais, NASA senior research scientist.

NASA was already doing astrobiology research in the park when Lassen Park education specialist Steve Zachary floated the idea of the student astrobiology program, modeling it on a successful summer intern program where high school students work with park rangers.

“Lassen is such a great outdoor classroom and is a perfect fit for this program,” Zachary says.

Red Bluff High was selected because of its proximity to Lassen Park. Students come to the park at the beginning of the school year and in winter. On their first visit—a camping trip—they collect mineral and water samples from different locations in Warner Valley. Observing murky water in small plastic cubes over several months provides clarity on the types of microorganisms willing to live in harsh, acidic conditions. And that offers clues as to what microbial life might have existed on Mars, Des Marais explains.

Students conduct experiments, record data, propose hypotheses, write reports and give presentations.

“It’s hands-on. It’s really engaging to them,” says Niki Parenteau, a SETI Institute research scientist who is part of the NASA team. “They’re working on real scientific problems.”

“It’s kind of changed the way I thought about science,” senior Jesse Cantrell says. “Before, it was just doing experiments without a point to them. With this, there are really big points behind the experiments."

The 13 students in the program this year were selected from 40 applicants. They meet weekly after school for ½ to 2 hours to work with two high school science teachers and the three NASA scientists, who come to Red Bluff monthly. When they aren’t on campus, they lead sessions via video-conferencing from NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field. A field trip to Ames is part of the program.

The work is college level. “They’ve had chemistry in class. We take that out into the natural world,” Des Marais says.

“It shocks their system a bit, the expectations and the challenge,” Red Bluff High chemistry teacher Dave Michael says.

There’s no class credit, he notes. The students, who are juniors and seniors, are there because they want to be. Students gain confidence by working with the NASA scientists, and they get the benefit of being able to list “NASA astrobiology intern” on applications for colleges and scholarships.

Judy Killam, a junior, wasn’t sure what to expect but applied because she likes hiking and being outside. “It connects the school to the outdoors,” she says.

She’s enjoying the program, and praised the relevancy. “I can actually connect concepts of biology with real-life stuff instead of just reading about it.”

“It’s unparalleled to anything I’ve ever done before,” junior Tanner Durfee says. “I look forward to every Monday.” The best part, he says, is “learning something new from people on the front of Mars exploration.”

The program is a plus for Lassen Park, Zachary says. Park officials are gaining better understanding of the hydrothermal areas.

“We’re getting a lot of incredible research information for free from this partnership with NASA,” Zachary says.

A few years ago, during a student field trip, scientist Parenteau discovered a previously unknown pinkish bacterium tolerant of acidic conditions near Sulphur Works. “Had this program not been going, it would not have happened,” she says.

NASA scientists say the main goal of the student astrobiology program is to spark interest in science careers.

“Our hope is that this helps steer kids in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) direction,” says Mike Kubo, NASA lab manager.

But if the astrobiology students don’t end up in science fields, that’s OK, he adds. They have been exposed to the wonder of science.

“It’s about valuing science in whatever field they pursue,” Kubo says