Dr. Lewis Dartnell

I started at CoMPLEX in 2003. I'd come from a Biology degree, so I spent the first year catching up on a lot of useful maths tricks and physics used in biological imaging. One of my six-week mini research projects, looking at the network architecture of the system of genes and proteins that protects our cells from turning cancerous, was lucky enough to stumble over something interesting and I was able to publish my findings. For my major project over the summer I looked into a particular kind of optical illusion, called a motion illusion, that disrupts how the brain judges the position and velocity of an object. My theory was that a particular dynamic display produced by the cuttlefish works as just such a motion illusion, essentially hacking the brain of its prey to prevent it from escaping effectively.

After finishing the MRes year at CoMPLEX I decided I wanted to pursue some research that has fascinated me since I was a child. Astrobiology is a growing field of science dealing with the possibility of life emerging beyond planet Earth. I came up with an astrobiology research proposal and managed to talk two supervisors into taking me on for it, one a space plasma physicist, the other a microbiologist. The first half of my PhD was taken up with creating an accurate computer model of what the radiation environment is like on the surface of Mars, as it is unprotected from cosmic rays by either a magentic field or thick atmosphere. Any microbial life in the top few metres would have to survive high radiation doses. Alongside the computation work, I isolated some new bacterial species from one of the dry valleys of Antarctica, thought to be a good analogue of the cold dry martian surface, and tested to see what levels of gamma-rays they could survive. Tying together the computational and experimental halves of this project I was able to assess how long different forms of bacteria could survive at increasing depths underground on Mars. I'm really glad I applied to CoMPLEX, as I simply don't think I would have found the support and freedom to try such an interdisciplinary research project in any other department in the country.

Since finishing my PhD in summer 2008 I've been focusing much more on science outreach for a few months, before I take up a new research position at UCL later in 2009. I worked on the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, and have been giving lots of talks on the search for extraterrestrial life at schools and science festivals. I published a popular science book whilst I was at CoMPLEX, 'Life in the Universe: A Beginner's Guide', and so I'm also keeping up a lot of freelancing for NewScientist, Sky at Night, and so on.

Lewis Dartnell

Page last modified on 06 aug 10 13:54