The Martian Chronicles
Issue 4, May 2000

Meet the Scientist: Darlene Lim


Q: What does your work involve, and what are your main interests in this field? What do you find the most interesting and satisfying about your research? What are some of your other interests?

A: I am currently conducting doctoral research at the Department of Geology, University of Toronto in the field of paleolimnology (study of lake history). Sediment that has accumulated through time at the bottom of an existing or extinct lake reads like the pages of a great historical climate book, and by taking a sediment core of the lake we access this precious information. I am particularly interested in the biological remains contained in these cores, since they can help us infer past climate changes. For example, diatoms (below at left), unicellular algae with glass (siliceous) cell walls, can be used as indicators of past climate change, since their populations will shift in relation to environmental changes. They usually preserve well in the sediment record, and their remains can be incredibly ornate and beautiful (see "Diatoms" Feb 1999 National Geographic for more info). I work specifically in the Canadian High Arctic, where there are a myriad of lakes and ponds. The diatoms in these sites must endure extremely short growing seasons and harsh winters. Through this research I hope to gain insight into how lakes and their algal communities evolve in extreme environments on Earth, and eventually I would like to apply this knowledge to the investigation of paleolakes on other planets, such as Mars.


What I appreciate most about paleolimnology is that it incorporates aspects of biology and geology, among with many other topics, into one comprehensive subject area. It is a field that has many applications in environmental monitoring, earth sciences, and space sciences. Most of all, however, I enjoy being immersed in an environment that allows me to not only keep asking questions, but also to participate in the process of trying to find the answers.

Other interests - I recently acquired my private pilot’s license, which was a childhood dream come true. Over the Christmas break I visited my hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, and during that time was able to rent a plane and go for a ride. It was an incredible thrill, since I had not piloted around that region of Canada before, and as soon as I took off I had a clear view of the Rocky Mountains backlit by an unforgettable Alberta sunset.


Q: You are very active in the Toronto and Canada Mars Society Chapters. How did you get involved, what do you do, and what do you think is a good way for others to become active humans-to-Mars advocates?

A: The Toronto MS Chapter was founded by Margarita Marinova at the beginning of 1999, and I joined right away. Along with other Toronto and Canada members, I have been working to organize this year’s conference, in addition to continuing our outreach and education efforts both on a local and national basis. Many of us are involved as mentors with the Canadian National Marsville program, and have been giving talks at schools, science fiction conferences, and various space organization meetings. The most effective thing to do to become an active advocate is to simply start talking! Getting our message into wide-reaching mediums such as TV, print, and the internet is wonderful, but we can each do our part by talking to our friends and family members, getting into schools, and organizing public lectures with local and international speakers.


  Ptarmigan and Buttercups  
Ptarmigan and buttercups

Q: When did you start going to the Arctic? What do you find to be fascinating about the place?

A: My first field season in the High Arctic was in the summer of 1997 as part of my MSc. research. I found the landscape to be incredibly fascinating and beautiful due to the feeling of total isolation that it engendered. While I was there, I would pay attention to the smallest detail, since life had a way of subtly showing up. The fauna tended to blend in with the tundra, while the flora seemed to do the opposite, popping up as a splash of green, pink or yellow in an otherwise brown-grey canvas backdrop.


Q: What did you study in undergrad? What made you decide to go to grad school? Do you have any advice for students who will be starting undergrad?

A: I studied Biology during my undergrad at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. I took a limnology course with Dr. John Smol while at Queen's, and got hooked. I was really excited by the opportunities and applications that this research area presented, including the ability to travel and spend time in the field, and I haven’t yet been disappointed!

My advice would be to not worry if you aren’t sure what you want to do. Sometimes the only way to find out what you really want is to discover what you don’t want. Make sure to enroll in classes that YOU are interested in, and in addition to your core courses, be sure to ‘broaden your horizons’ by taking a variety of electives that deal with subjects you are simply curious about. Undergrad is the perfect time to explore, so use it to your benefit.


  Canyon Gulch  
Canyon Gulch

Q: You spent a lot of time during undergrad in the field. What did that involve? How did it impact your life?

A: During undergrad, I spent some time in Central America taking biology field courses. I could not have asked for a more stimulating environment in which to learn, and I became resolved at that time to try and make fieldwork always play a role in my life. I also spent some time in Guyana, South America, during undergrad, as part of the Queen’s University Project on International Development. This student organization, funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, ran environmental, engineering and teaching programs in Guyana geared at knowledge transfer between Canadians and local Guyanese. Given our limited resources, as a team we were constantly improvising to try and make our projects successful. It taught me that training is invaluable, but flexibility and creativity are the keys to achieving goals in fluid situations.


Sleeping camp  
Sleeping camp

Q: What do you believe to be the main reason for going to Mars? When do you think we will get there? If you could have any job/position on the mission, what would it be?

A: Ultimately, I believe that humans will go to Mars for the sake of exploration and adventure. We seem to have an innate drive to look over our horizon, and the history of civilization attests to our species’ unquenchable thirst for discovery in scientific, geographic, economic, and personal terms. In the very near future, I believe that space travel, and the quest for Mars, will offer the ultimate ability to satiate these needs. Moreover, science will be at the forefront of this discovery process. We will finally have the chance to execute a comprehensive search for life on Mars, in an attempt to answer the question “are we alone”. Furthermore, the need to sophisticate our technology will lead to the inevitable refinement and improvement of our current economic, social, and political systems as we develop future Mars colonies and adjust our own Earthbound protocols to accommodate interplanetary transactions. I think that we will see humans on Mars within the next 20 years, however there is, of course, much work to be done between now and then. Given my background, if I was fortunate enough to be involved in a Mars mission, my ‘dream job’ would no doubt be to participate as the resident paleoinvestigator. Collecting a core from an ancient Mars lakebed and picking through it for signs of fossil life…now that would be my idea of the ultimate research project!