Meet the astrobiologist and her students who are searching for life on MarsMay 9, 20233 min read
By Emma Richards, University of Florida
From a young age, Amy Williams wondered if life existed beyond Earth amidst the dark abyss of space, stars and planets — a curiosity that years later landed her a career researching and exploring Mars.
Williams, an assistant professor of geology and an astrobiologist at the University of Florida, works as a participating scientist on the Perseverance and Curiosity Rover Science Teams and previously served as a postdoctoral research associate at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
As an astrobiologist and geobiologist, she uses techniques from geology, microbiology and chemistry to search for life beyond Earth.
“Even as a little kid watching meteor showers with my family, I wondered if there was someone out there in the stars looking back at Earth.”
“Even as a little kid watching meteor showers with my family, I wondered if there was someone out there in the stars looking back at Earth,” she said in an episode of the From Florida podcast. “It’s been a passion of mine my whole career and now it’s the most amazing opportunity to serve on both of the active Mars rover missions.”
Williams’ journey to Mars began as a graduate student when a research professor gave her the opportunity to work on the NASA Curiosity mission. From there, Williams built her way up and is now a participating scientist working on day-to-day rover operations.
Williams also is opening doors for graduate students at UF to work on Mars research, helping upcoming generation of scientists follow her path. She is specifically interested in involving women and underrepresented groups in her work.
Based on her research, Williams said life on Mars, if found, will likely look less like Marvin the Martian and more like microbial life similar to bacteria on Earth.
Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012 and Perseverance landed in 2021. The rovers are searching for potential life on Mars by going to habitable environments and searching for evidence of water and essential elements that could supported such life forms.
Curiosity has spent nearly its entire mission exploring a large five-kilometer-tall mountain in Gale Crater known as Mount Sharp. The scientists can see Mars’ history and climate based on changes in the chemistry and sediments of the mountain.
As for Perseverance, the rover is exploring Jezero Crater, with emphasis on its delta, a geologic deposit that is formed when water from a river flows into a lake. Perseverance will help collect rock and sediment samples from Mars that will be the first brought back to Earth.
NASA is also working on a program to eventually send humans to Mars, which will likely take many decades; the first stage in the project will be returning humans to the Moon.
“But in the meanwhile, these robots, these rovers that we send to the red planet, they are our proxy,” Williams said. “And looking through the robot rover’s eyes, the images that are returned to us, I recognize this is the closest I will ever be to standing on Mars and looking up at these beautiful geological units, looking up at an alien world that’s so familiar because the tenets of geology apply on Mars, the same as they do on Earth.”
To learn more about her work, watch this video featuring Professor Williams:
Amy J. Williams Assistant Professor
Amy J. Williams is searching for habitable environments and microbial life on Mars and outer world moons.