IU professor to become planetary protection officer for NASA
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Lisa Pratt can’t help but laugh when talking about her new job.
“The title is not a title anybody should have,” she said.
Pratt is stepping down from her position as associate executive dean of Indiana University’s College of Arts and Sciences to become NASA’s planetary protection officer.
The position captivated the nation for a few days in August when news outlets proclaimed NASA was looking for someone to defend the Earth against aliens. That description, while sensational, is technically accurate.
When Pratt assumes her new position Feb. 5, she will have two primary responsibilities. One is to protect the Earth from potential contamination by extraterrestrial life forms, including possible microorganisms. The other is to prevent accidental transportation of Earth’s microbes to other planets.
It’s a job Pratt can’t believe she was selected for, not just because of the title, but because of the journey she took to get there.
Born and raised in Rochester, Minnesota, Pratt was the daughter of a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic. She was surrounded by doctors, scientists and researchers throughout her childhood, but couldn’t picture herself becoming one of them.
“I never met a single peer of my father’s who was female,” she said.
Pratt loved science in high school, but she didn’t feel there was any way to go forward in that field as a woman. She went to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, where she planned to major in Spanish. Realizing the things she enjoyed were all related to science and the outdoors, Pratt transferred to the University of North Carolina, where she earned her undergraduate degree in botany. She earned her master’s degree, also in botany, from the University of Illinois.
Despite completing two degrees, Pratt was still convinced she didn’t belong in science. She went home to Rochester, moved in with her parents and started bartending. That might have been where her career in science ended, had it not been for the persistence of a former teacher.
John Dennison, a geology professor at North Carolina, sent her a postcard every month for about a year. Each one had the same message: You’ve made a mistake.
“He was the one who saw something long before I had any inkling that I had the potential to go on in science,” Pratt said.
Dennison, who died in 2014, ended up being Pratt’s adviser for her second master’s degree, this one in geology. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in geology from Princeton University.
Captivated by the idea that Earth’s geological record could be used to understand what happened 100 million or even 1 billion years ago, Pratt’s doctoral work focused on intervals of time in which Earth’s oceans became starved for oxygen. These oceanic anoxic events created deposits of black sediment. Those deposits are important because they contain petroleum source rocks.
Pratt did her post-doctorate work at the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, Colorado, working on petroleum resources. In 1987, she became the first female faculty member in IU’s department of geological sciences. One of her first big expeditions took her to the gold mines of South Africa to search for life in the subsurface of the Earth.
In 2011, NASA gave her and Jeffrey White, a professor at IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, a $2.4 million grant to study methane emissions and microbial life on the margins of the Greenland Ice Sheet. NASA was interested in this work because if microorganisms leave an identifiable sign within methane plumes on Earth, the same techniques could be used to look for similar signs in the methane plumes on Mars.
Her work searching for life in extreme environments is what led colleagues at NASA to suggest she apply for planetary protection officer. It turned out to be a tortuous process. The application was hosted on the USAJOBS website, which was prone to crashing and wouldn’t allow her to cut and paste. It also required her to submit her undergraduate transcripts. Refusing to dig up records that were more than 40 years old, she submitted her application without them. Then she got a computer-generated note informing her she wasn’t qualified for the position.
“So I sent that email forward to people at NASA headquarters, saying, ‘Don’t know why you told me to apply; I’m not qualified,'” she said.
Someone went in by hand to move her application forward. Pratt got her first interview in November. She’s not sure how many other people made it to that point, but she knows there were about 1,400 applicants.
While Pratt thought she was a credible candidate, she did not expect to be offered the position.
“I first of all told the person who made the phone call that I was concerned they might have phoned the wrong person,” she said.
It wasn’t a mistake, and Pratt had to make a decision. The job required working in Washington, D.C. She wasn’t keen on the idea because she abhors cities and her husband, Bruce Douglas, is a faculty member in IU’s recently renamed department of Earth and atmospheric sciences. But Douglas and their two daughters insisted it was a wonderful way to cap off her career as a scientist.
Pratt is still coming to grips with her decision. She’ll be spending most of her time in Washington, but will return to Bloomington every other week. Planetary protection officers typically serve for terms of three or four years.
“That would suit me very well in terms of an expectation for retirement while I’m still not suffering from too much dementia,” she said.
So far, humans have found no evidence of life coming from anywhere but Earth. Pratt thinks it will only be a matter of time before that changes, based on all the unlikely environments where she’s found life on this planet. Still, she would be delighted to find proof of extraterrestrial life.
“It would be more profound than any other discovery that has been made,” Pratt said.
And if it happens during her term as planetary protection officer, a woman who thought she had no place in science will be a part of it.