MILL CREEK — Many envision rocket launches and space missions when they think of NASA. But Megan Carlson, of Mill Creek, has been working to answer smaller research questions that go into these major scientific undertakings.
Carlson, 22, spent the past two years as an astrobiology intern at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Her work there included testing the theory of life on Mars.
She was studying biology and bioengineering at Santa Clara University nearby when she saw an online posting for a summer 2012 internship. Carlson accidentally sent her resume to a laboratory coordinator instead of following the application procedure.
“It ended up being a blessing, not following the directions,” Carlson said.
The NASA coordinator read her resume and sidestepped the application process to get her into his organic chemistry lab.
She went to work comparing soil from extreme climate areas on Earth with samples from Mars. She studied extremophiles, or organisms that live in extreme conditions, such as bacteria in a saltwater lake.
“The idea is these are the closest to what life is on Mars,” Carlson said.
She worked to establish biomarkers, or measurable indicators of some biological state or condition.
“It basically means you look for a trend,” she said. “Once you find that, you can apply it to Mars.”
Carlson searched for biosignatures, or evidence of past or present life, that a Mars exploration rover could then look for during its mission.
“When you a look at it big-picture, it’s awesome,” she said. “This has been such a life-changing experience.”
Carlson’s internship was extended for two years until she graduated from the university last month. Her experience left her with new respect for the day-to-day work researchers do at NASA.
“People don’t understand that for every big mission and discovery, there’s thousands of little milestones, little research questions that have to be answered,” she said.
Carlson was chosen from more than 2,500 interns to receive the Ames Honor Award. She’s going to California later this month to receive the recognition.
“I never thought I’d win an award,” she said. “Every day was just another day of work.”
Carlson said she found out about the honor two days too late to include it in her applications to medical school. She plans to become an eye surgeon. She was drawn toward that field of medicine because vision problems run in her family.
Carlson is studying for and plans to take the Medical College Admission Test today.
She is also getting ready to start a new job as an emergency room scribe next week. She is expected to work in three Tacoma-area hospitals, following doctors and typing their notes to enable the physicians more time with patients.
“You just see so much medicine,” she said. “It’s every med student’s dream.”
Carlson credits her scientific smarts to teachers who made learning about the subject fun. She had Fran Hartman in fourth grade at Cedar Wood Elementary.
“My love for science started there,” she said.
Carlson continued to follow that interest at Archbishop Murphy High School. Her biology teacher, Gail Wellenstein, took a group of students on a scientific mission to Costa Rica.
“If I can do a science field trip, I will. That’s just the nerd in me,” Carlson said.
On the expedition, Carlson analyzed water samples and observed rain forest animals.
Wellenstein said Carlson was a hard-working student who was filled with questions and loved learning. “While in Costa Rica, she acknowledged her fear of a certain animal and then willingly held one in order to face her fear and overcome it,” Wellenstein wrote in an email to the Herald from France. “She is a great young woman.”
Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; firstname.lastname@example.org.