Student Research at Great Salt Lake Funded by NASA Grants

gsl nasa space grants

May 5, 2020

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah’s famous saline lake is both classroom and field lab for Westminster student researchers. The NASA Space Grant program funded three research projects at Great Salt Lake (GSL) this past year and recently awarded two new grants for next year. The program distributes funds to each state to educate STEM students. 

Over the past year, six Westminster students studied GSL’s tar seeps and the lake’s similarity to the surface of Mars. Students submitted three research projects to NASA and digitally presented their findings to the Utah NASA Space Grant Consortium this spring. Each project was supported by Westminster professors with expertise in biological research on the GSL, an extreme ecosystem that serves as a model for life on other planets.  

“NASA’s space grants not only push science forward, they also provide opportunities for college students to get excited about science and move into STEM careers,” said Bonnie Baxter, biology professor and director of Westminster’s Great Salt Lake Institute (GSLI). 

Westminster 2019-20 NASA Space Grant Projects

What in Tarnation? Monitoring Animal Entrapments at the Rozel Tar Seeps

  • Mary Sanchez, a finance and pre-professional health major graduating spring 2020
  • Cayla Martin, a sophomore biology major
  • Jaimi Butler, Great Salt Lake Institute coordinator
  • David Kimberly, biology associate professor
  • Foad Yousef, assistant professor of biology 

Students Mary Sanchez and Cayla Martin studied animals trapped in the Rozel Tar Seeps at the shore of GSL. Pelicans are the most common victim of the sticky tar. Sanchez and Martin used motion activated field cameras to monitor activity at the tar seeps. They tracked the number of fatalities and observed how the tar preserved the carcasses in real time.  

“Monitoring these preservations in the tar in its early stages allows us to use this site as a modern analog to other petroleum deposits with fossils already found in them, such as the La Brea Tar Pits,” said Sanchez. 

View the Tar Seeps Presentation     Watch I am Utah Space Grant Video

Mineralogy of Great Salt Lake: An Analogue for Martian Evaporites

  • Calli Cahill, biology major graduating spring 2020
  • Adrik Da Silva, biology major in the Honors College graduating spring 2020
  • Bonnie Baxter, biology professor and GSLI director 

Students Calli Cahil and Adrik Da Silva developed a method for NASA to investigate evidence of ancient life on Mars. Cahil and Da Silva studied minerals at Great Salt Lake that resemble the salty beds of ancient lakes on Mars. They developed a successful way to extract microorganisms (haloarchaea) from gypsum crystals and mirabilite mounds at the lake. NASA can use the method to analyze gypsum or mirabilite returned from the Mars 2020 Mission and potentially cultivate any microorganisms found inside. 

View the Mineralogy Presentation
Cahill, CalliDa Silva, Adrik

Great Salt Lake Halophilic Archaea as a Model for Possible Extant Life on Mars

  • Alex Breda, a biology major graduating spring 2020
  • Michael Regan Jr., a biology major graduating spring 2020
  • Bonnie Baxter, biology professor and GLSI director 

Students Alex Breda and Michael Regan studied why tiny organisms (haloarchaea) survive in Great Salt Lake’s extreme environment and what that could reveal about life on Mars. Breda and Regan found haloarchaea have superpowers like DNA repair and radiation resistance. They concluded that the adaptability of haloarchaea on Earth provide a window into the evolution of microbial life on Mars. If anything is surviving there in the dried lakes and salt flats, it would look very similar to haloarchaea.

View the Archaea Presentation

Westminster 2020-21 NASA Space Grant Projects 

Microbiology of Great Salt Lake’s Extreme SANDS (Soils and Natural Deposits of Shorelines)

Westminster students will work with biology professor David Parrott to genetically identify microorganisms they collect from GSL sand. Students will learn research methodology and build an understanding of the microbiology associated with the unique soils and natural deposits of the GSL shorelines. They will gain skills needed to imagine, plan, create and implement their own experiments. 

Reach Out! Science Connecting College and High School Students Underrepresented in STEM

Chemistry professor Joan Roque Peña will lead an outreach program to address the lack of family support often experienced by underrepresented minority and first-generation college students. Westminster students will perform science experiments, peer-mentor high school students and educate students and their families about college. Westminster students in Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and in Westminster’s first-generation Legacy Scholar program will serve as mentors and run a “College 101” seminar. Students will also modify an existing college course “The Science of Salinity” for high school. 


Media Contacts

Arikka Von

About Westminster

Westminster is a private, independent, and comprehensive college in Salt Lake City, Utah. Students experience the liberal arts blended with professional programs in an atmosphere dedicated to civic engagement. With the goal of enabling its graduates to live vibrant, just, and successful lives, Westminster provides transformational learning experiences for both undergraduate and graduate students in a truly student-centered environment. Faculty focus on teaching, learning, and developing distinctive, innovative programs, while students thrive on Westminster’s urban Sugar House campus within minutes of the Rocky Mountains.

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