Looking for life beyond Earth

Anezina Solomonidou, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), discusses the giant leaps in discovering habitable potential in worlds far away from ours

Anezina Solominidou may call America home, but she comes from the volcanic island of Milos and grew up in Athens, Greece. She is one of NASA’s Planetary Science Section researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Los Angeles.

How did she get there? Her journey began the moment she finished high school and started studying at the Department of Geology at the University of Patras. During her studies there, she focused on the science of volcanology. Now her speciality is planetary geology (or planetology or astrogeology), with the main focus of her research being on the investigation of the icy moons of our outer solar system, and specifically the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. She studies the nature of Saturn’s Titan and Enceladus and Jupiter’s Europa and Ganymede. She endeavours to examine the properties of those bodies, the geological processes that connect their interiors with their surfaces, the resemblances of their features with the Earth and their conditions for astrobiology along with the potentials for habitability.

Anezina took some time from her busy schedule to sit down with Neos Kosmos and talk about her life-changing experience in NASA, her research and the giant leaps in discovery that take place every day, as well as her Greek heritage, passing on some valuable advice for the ones who aren’t afraid to dream big and pursue their goals.

How did you become interested in a career in planetary science?
It was a natural process and I didn’t have to put a lot of thought into it. After attending a course of planetary geology at the University of Patras where I received my bachelor’s degree, I felt the need to delve a bit deeper and pursue a master’s degree, a PhD and everything that’s necessary to pursue a career in science. I guess you could say my feelings about being just a casual participant in science, although important, would not have been enough.

Did you always want to study outer space, even when you were at school?
I was always attracted to and by science. There was always this unique feeling of excitement whenever I was close to an interesting geological outcrop on Milos, the island I am from, which is actually a volcanic island, or one could playfully call it ‘nature’s chemistry lab to experience physical phenomenon’.
I made up my mind and chose planetary science as my focus when I was 13 years old, after watching the movie Contact, which is based on a novel by Carl Sagan. I then knew it wouldn’t have been easy for me to choose between geology and astrophysics. So, I tried to find a way to combine them. Likely that’s planetary science and planetary geology.

Was it easy for you to pursue a career with NASA?
I can’t say that it was either easy or hard. It was a step by step process which required a clear and determined mind and, of course, the guidance of ‘mentors’ that every student needs during their education.

During my PhD my mentor Dr Athena Coustenis and I were collaborating with the team of Dr Rosaly Lopes, who is my current adviser. Dr Lopes invited me as a guest lecturer at NASA’s JPL in order to present my research and results back in 2012. This visit showed me the extended research opportunities that JPL had to offer and the wealth of resources in terms of laboratories, scientific team members with expertise on my field, etc. All that, in addition to the expertise of JPL in the Cassini-Huygens mission, which was the mission I was already working on for five years.

This motivated me to apply for a NASA postdoctoral fellowship, which I was awarded in 2014 when I moved from Athens and Paris where I was studying and living at the time. It has now been almost three years that I have been living in LA.

Do you have any recommendations and advice for those considering careers in planetary science?
I have loads of them and I am very open to talk to people who are interested, in the same way that my mentors provided me with their knowledge, advice and guidance. I hope that in the near future the planetary science society will play a critical role in our lives and will be joined by many more people, casual participants or not. One should find what fascinates them, more in terms of a planetary science field which could include space physics, geodynamics, geology, biology and more. Then choose a target body which would be the main scientific focus and pay attention to the data availability and the scientific objectives a planet, a moon or a system has to offer.

Finally, being in the planetary science community requires very good collaborative skills, extensive communication of the produced science, patience, will, and vast amounts of love and admiration for our cosmos.

In your opinion is there life outside Earth, or conditions that could support human life elsewhere?
The search for habitable worlds in our universe is one of the primary investigations among planetary scientists. It involves all types of different disciplines such as astrobiology, astrochemistry, planetary geology and more, all working towards one common goal: to find the appropriate conditions for life and prove its existence on bodies beyond Earth.

Of course this quest has developed and evolved beyond the past school of thought, where scientists were looking for life exactly like the one we experience here on Earth. Other than the promising planetary bodies of our solar system, we are now looking at places outside of it, such as exoplanets that orbit stars other than our sun and for elemental properties that can support and sustain life, not as we know it, but as we have not experienced it. There is a fast growth in these kind of explorations and day-by-day we are getting closer to answers on the issue.

Of course, future missions to promising places for the existence of life are top priorities for space agencies, with two of them being ESA’s JUICE mission to the Jupiter system, where one of its goals is the exploration of the underground oceans of Europa and Ganymede, and of course NASA’s Europa Mission.

What fascinates you most about these worlds you are exploring, and about your research?
I can talk for hours about that, but I’ll try to keep it short. First of all, the exploration of planetary bodies and physical properties out of our terrestrial boundaries answers many of my existential questions and broadens my perception on limits, fears and diversity. Through the investigation of our distant worlds, like the planets and moons of our outer solar system as well as their exoplanets, we get closer to answers about the formation of the Earth, but most importantly, on how the galaxies and the whole universe works as a unison through a system of independent bodies. Which in a way is a macroscopic view of our planet and society.

Do you find the general public is more receptive to exploring other worlds when they see how it contributes to understanding and protecting our own planet?
I believe it is vitally essential for current and future generations to be more concerned about our environment and to be more involved in the natural world in terms of either scientific awareness or in terms of the uses of our natural resources.

We don’t live in a world where the preservation of our planet, its nature and the living species on it or the exploration of our extended ‘home’ (i.e. the universe) are top priorities. Even though I experience the excitement of people’s reactions when they hear about the advances in astrophysics and planetary sciences, I remember that this excitement occurs precisely because it is not as evident in our everyday societal influence or in our educational systems. I can’t stress enough how important this is and what kind of influence and advantages this could have in both our everyday lives but also in the way our societies function.

The mere concept of beginning to consider where we live, comparing our existence to the grander scale of the universe and pondering the notion that we are all guests visiting a planet, has the potential to change the existential perception of ourselves, thus influencing our interactions with our planet and our human experience as a whole.

You live in California, yet you often travel back to Greece. What do you love and hate most about the two, respectively?
I travel to Greece pretty often because many of my collaborators are based in Europe and some of the most important planetary science conferences are being held there too. That often gives me the chance to spend a few days in Greece, where I also have active collaborations with the University of Athens, the Observatory of Athens and the Democritos Institute.

I don’t hate anything about California or Greece or any place in this world per se. What I do repel though, has to do with specific tendencies that hurt human rights and the natural world. That includes any kind of human discrimination and oppression and extends to all types of environmental hazards, from deforestation to water and air pollution. I find these problems present a global pattern that hurts societies all over the world. So I can’t specifically name the US or Greece. On the other hand, there are many things that I like about these two places. I love the nature around the US west coast, the national parks, the lakes, the mountains and especially the endless desert. I also love the multi-ethnicity and multicultural experience that Los Angeles offers. In Greece, I thoroughly enjoy the centre of Athens with the numerous little shops and bars, our traditional/folk music such as rebetiko and nisiotika, the Aegean islands, etc.

How did your family feel about your decision to move to the US?
They are happy about it. They were used to the idea of me living abroad for many years before I came here. It helps that they know that I like what I do and that I am having a good time in Los Angeles. I guess that’s all a person who cares about you needs to know. In my opinion, physical distance is not something that should affect relationships in a negative way.

Would you consider going back to Greece? Was there ever a choice in staying?
There’s always a choice. Where there is no war, fatigue or extreme circumstances (political, environmental, etc.) one always has a choice. I would definitely consider going back to Greece or going to any other country that offers me what I consider vital and essential, such as a healthy and strong working environment surrounded by advanced science and all the means to export your work and sustain global collaborations with scientific teams.
And of course a nice living environment where I can enjoy my everyday life.