Please tell us about yourself

Essex graduate Anushree Srivastava has been chosen as a finalist in the British Council Alumni Awards for her outstanding contributions to space exploration research including helping to find out what it might be like to live and work on Mars.

Anushree, from India, completed a Masters in Biotechnology at Essex in 2016 and said her experience at Essex helped pave the way for her dream job in astrobiology.

She said: “I love space exploration, however my journey from a small town in North India to Britain chasing my love, my dream, was not easy.”

Biologist Anushree Srivastava jetted off on a ‘mission to Mars’ immediately after completing her MSc at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex.

Originally from Lucknow in India, Anushree has just found out she gained a distinction for her Biotechnology Masters at Essex while in the middle of the Utah desert taking part in the pioneering Mars 160 Twin Desert-Arctic Analog simulation mission.

The mission – involving an eight-strong crew – started in September and is being spearheaded by the Mars Society, the world’s largest and most influential space advocacy organisation dedicated to the human exploration and settlement of the planet Mars.

The project is simulating what a mission to Mars would really be like and as a crew biologist Anushree’s work will help explore Mars ‘analogs’ – environments with strong similarities with a Martian environment – from a ‘geomicrobiological’ perspective.

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

I changed my studies to follow my passion, and now I’m part of the Mars 160 Mission.

I’m from a remote part of North India and when I was in school, I wanted to become a singer; I liked history and literature. I never thought that I would be doing science one day, although I was always innately fascinated towards the natural world and its processes.

When I went to Grad school, I started following my family’s dream for me to become a civil servant. I was happy because it was a prestigious job, so I worked hard. But while reading a thick zoology book as part of my preparation for one of my exams the word space biology came into my life. Long story short, I was completely mesmerized by the idea of the possibility of exploring life beyond Earth.

There was now something that kept pushing me towards delving deep into these ideas and the adventure of exploration, although I had nothing to do with this subject at that time. So, I made a big decision. I left my civil services preparation (which I had almost completed) and embarked into the world of space science and exploration.

But I had no clue how I was going to do it. I knew my destination but did not know how to reach it.

What did you study?

After completing a Bachelors of Arts in Ancient Indian History and Anthropology and Master of Arts in Anthropology at Lucknow University; Anushree felt herself drawn to a career in science and was inspired by a magazine article on Dr Terry McGenity from Essex School of Biological Sciences.

She said: “The biggest turning point in my life was reading about Dr McGenity’s research on ancient signs of life buried in salt deposits. This was mind-boggling astrobiology research he was conducting!”

The main obstacle was making the transition from arts to science. I researched the amazing science of astrobiology and learned about the grad level courses in astrobiology abroad and found that it is a truly interdisciplinary science. I wanted to  first obtain a higher degree in microbiology, as I was blown away by the idea of finding trapped microorganisms inside ancient salt crystals, which was very relevant from the Martian perspective. But I lacked necessary training and experience, which was  a great challenge and caused me several failures. That was a difficult phase, and the word difficult is a true understatement here.

Convincing my family who really wanted me to pursue the administrative profession was a huge thing as well. But my parents’ support was always there and I feel blessed for that. They have been my strength, even when they felt I was moving towards an uncertainty.

So, I kept moving ahead and decided to obtain some short-term academic training in a biological sciences laboratory based in Hyderabad as a research trainee. I am thankful that they allowed me to work in the microbiology lab even though I had no prior experience but had enough passion to learn. It took me lot of time and hard work before I was offered my postgraduate position at Essex.

Immediately after graduating, I found my dream job, studying ancient salt deposits from an astrobiological perspective and

How was the experience at Essex?

Anushree’s studies at Essex have helped her develop the skills needed to investigate the diversity of microbial life in the extreme, high-salt – halophilic – environments you find in the sites the Mars 160 mission team is visiting.

She applied to Essex because she was very interested in studying the prolonged survivability of halophiles buried inside ancient halite in the laboratory of Dr McGenity. As part of her MSc research project, she had the opportunity to study the ~6 million years old (Messinian) evaporite deposits and performed microbiological analysis. She feels fortunate to have had the chance to be inspired by the work of Dr McGenity at Essex and Professor Stefano Lugli, from the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia.

She said: “My principal research interests lie in the field of geomicrobiology, but I have a real interdisciplinary interest in astrobiology and space exploration.To pursue this combination of interests, I joined the Masters program in biotechnology at the University of Essex.

“Under the supervision of Dr Terry McGenity, I studied Messinian halite salt deposits from an astromicrobiological and biogeographical perspective.”

The Mars 160 mission consists of two 80 day fieldwork sessions: the first session is being conducted in the Utah desert at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) and the second mission is in the Flashline Mars Analog Research Station (FMARS) in the Canadian Arctic.

“This is an ambitious and long-term simulated Mars mission and,” said Anushree. “As a crew biologist I am working on three principal projects which have significant astrobiological implications.

“Astrobiology addresses the most profound question of humankind – ‘Are we alone?’ Astrobiology explores the possibility of finding extinct or extant life elsewhere in the universe, as well as investigating the origin and evolution of life on Earth.

“One of the principal targets of the Mars 160 science goals is to explore the extreme niches of the two significant Mars analogs: the Utah Desert and the Canadian Arctic for 160 days, and studying the extremophile diversity.

“Personally, I am interested in finding the microbial life in ancient evaporite deposits of these Mars analogs. And our study during the Mars 160 mission will help us understand the potential of finding life in the similar environment of Mars.”

“I intend to conduct a microbiological analysis of salt crystals. Any sign of life detected in those deposits and the characterization of microbial communities will aid in understanding the nature of possible microbial ecology on Mars.”

Tell us about your work

I found my dream job, studying ancient salt deposits from an astrobiological perspective and I became Crew Biologist on The Mars Society’s Mars 160 Twin Desert-Arctic Analog Mission.

I’m part of a team trying to simulate a real Mars mission in the Utah Desert to understand what it would be like to live and carry out scientific research on Mars. I am  performing scientific research which has significant implications to search for life on Mars.

She said: “Essex gave me hands-on research experience in a geomicrobiology lab, looking for signs of past or present life trapped inside crystals. I developed the skills needed to investigate microbial life in extreme, high-salt environments.”

The knowledge she gained helped her secure the position of crew biologist on The Mars Society’s 160 Twin Desert-Artic Analog Mission. The objective was to simulate a real mission to Mars which meant adapting to extreme living conditions and learning how to carry out scientific research on the red planet.

The team spent 80 days in the Utah Desert, 30 days on Devon Island in Canada and a polar desert inside the Arctic Circle.

She said: “We lived in the research stations, completely isolated and immersed in life with our crewmates. We performed extra-vehicular activities (EVA) in heavy space suits and conducted scientific operations which were physically demanding.”

This long-term simulation played a pivotal role in understanding the complexities of conducting science operations on Mars; and Anushree’s dedication to the mission did not go unnoticed.

She has been part of Spaceward Bound expeditions in India in a high altitude cold desert and United Kingdom in a kilometre deep salt mine, in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

In 2017 Anushree was awarded Mars 160 Volunteer of the Year and she plans to become part of a doctoral program to develop her astrobiology skills and contribute to the future exploration of Mars.

She has some words of advice for those struggling to achieve their career goals.

“Find your passion and do what you love no matter how difficult things appear at first.,” she said.”Never consider any work insignificant – you don’t know where that little step will end up. Follow your heart and reach for the stars!”

The British Council Alumni Awards celebrate the outstanding achievements of alumni and showcase the impact and value of a UK higher education. Last year we had the highest number of finalists shortlisted outside the Russell Group.

This year the British Council received 1,700 alumni applications in total from 125 countries representing 140 british higher education Institutes.

How does your work benefit the community?

Now in the Utah desert she is using the skills she learnt in Essex labs to uncover evidence of life in extreme environments. “This long-term simulation is very important in terms of understanding the ability of humans to conduct science operations on Mars,” said Anushree. “We perform extra-vehicular activities (EVAs) in the heavy space suits and conduct scientific operations on the field which is physically demanding. Inside the habitat, we perform different human factors research which is highly relevant for studying humans in the simulated environments and how it can influence the future human colonization of Mars.

“I perform the astrobiological research here at Mars Desert Research Station as the ‘Mars-based’ astronaut-scientist in cooperation with ‘Earth-based’ experts based at NASA’s Ames Research Centre and the Canadian Museum of Science, through asynchronous communication. During this simulation, we are also testing how this communication works between “Mars” and “Earth” based teams which is how it is supposed to be in the real Mars mission.”

Her love of space has already led to Anushree getting involved in other space simulations. She recently visited Leh, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir in India, as part of the NASA Spaceward Bound India 2016 expedition team. As the part of the science team, she was responsible for collecting the sample of evaporite deposits at TsoKar which is an ancient lake and again considered to have many similarities to the evaporite deposits on the surface of Mars.

Your future plans?

So what of the future? “I hope to become part of a Doctoral program after finishing the Mars160 simulation to carry forward my passion for astrobiology,” said Anushree. “And in turn, contributing towards the future astrobiological exploration of Mars!”

Advice to students?

But I still have a long way to go!

So, I would like to convey this message to you –   find your passion and do the work that you love no matter how difficult things appear at the first place. Never consider a work menial or insignificant as you don’t know what you can end up with by taking that little step. What is important is to just pour your heart into what you do like as you will not get another chance. Trust that if your dream is based on the truth and goodness for this planet and its people, it has to be materialised one day. All you need to do is “KEEP TRYING” even when nothing seems to work. That’s what I tried to do, which has certainly been difficult but I always got strength from my faith in my own capabilities and the intensity of my desires. Giving up is a huge loss for you and for the planet you are living on, because if you don’t give up you are on the way to creating something very profound, and in turn presenting an example which can illustrate the path to many who dream and work.

So follow your heart. That is what I did!