Kathy Benison’s research on acid salt lakes could help the search for life on Mars. A professor of geology at WVU, Benison examines halite and gypsum that form in rare acid salt lakes in Chile and western Australia. As the salts grow, they trap pockets of lake water, air, and microorganisms that accurately document their environments. She and colleagues applied this knowledge to salt deposits from ancient lakes in the U.S. Great Plains and Northern Ireland to learn about conditions on Earth’s early continent Pangaea. Take it two giant leaps farther, and the research could point to the answer to one of humanity’s biggest questions.
On the thrill of geology There’s a lot of variety. I get to go to places like Chile and western Australia, but I also get to look at ancient rocks and try to compare them to modern rocks. My favorite thing in geology may be looking at an old rock and being able to read the clues to figure out the environment that it formed in.
On the quest for Martian life These acid saline lakes are the closest terrestrial analogs of Mars’ surface environments. Going to these different environments makes you realize how different environments can be, and that can help if we want to study and search for life on Mars.
On being a science educator I think it’s important for the general public to realize that science isn’t a “done” thing. Scientists are always learning new things, they’re always testing. We’re skeptical and we’re always looking to learn more and test how the Earth works. In training my introductory students, I think about it in terms of training the citizenship to be scientifically literate. My goal is to help train a new generation of scientists and scientists who will learn more than I know.
On travel in the name of science A lot of travel I do is for research, but some of the travel is to do professional service. I’ll be traveling to a NASA proposal panel, so I’ll convene with other experts and debate those proposals. The good thing about that is that I get to read what other people are doing for research. I also travel to professional meetings, which is another way to communicate your research and communicate with other geologists.
interviewed by Kristen Uppercue | photographed by Carla Witt Ford