Exploring life’s limits on Earth

As part of her research into how life survives in places where it seemingly shouldn’t, Zena Cardman dove deep into a lake in British Columbia alongside researchers from NASA and the Canadian Space Agency and dug holes in the permafrost in the Arctic.

The work is helping scientists determine if life exists or existed on other planets.

Cardman, who graduated from Carolina in 2010 and is now a graduate student at UNC studying microbiology, has long been interested in science fiction, physics, cosmology and biology. Her research has inspired a new desire to ensure that her career will include public outreach projects so that she can share the incredible views she has seen and the discoveries she and others are making in faraway places.

“I want to take people on a tour of the things they can’t necessarily see for themselves,” Cardman says.

She’s doing it already. While in the Arctic, Cardman filmed high-definition footage for the PBS television series NOVA. On a research trip to Antarctica, she set up a webcam to chat with students. She has spoken several times at Morehead Planetarium.

For one of her favorite projects, Cardman helped develop an online tool that allows the public to contribute to real, ongoing scientific research. The tool, which has a game-like interface, allows the public to classify thousands of images of freshwater microbialites, modern analogs to some of the earliest examples of life on Earth, found in two lakes in Canada. Many scientists believe that a better understanding of microbialites could help them better pinpoint where life may have existed on other planets. Already, the public has helped classify nearly 1 million images.

As a Carolina undergraduate, Cardman majored in biology with minors in marine sciences and creative writing.  She discovered the marine sciences department during her second year.

“I was really lucky to find that department,” Cardman says.  “An interest in the origins and extent of life had always been in the back of my mind, but until I found the MASC department I had never thought to use the ocean as a platform for studying life’s limits.”

The discovery helped set her off on trips to Antarctica, the Arctic and Canada. As an undergraduate student, she also spent a few months aboard a 135-foot brigantine, sailing from San Diego to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The trip was part of a program that teaches students about the ocean as well as how to handle sails, navigate and keep the boat moving.

Cardman, who won the 2010 Irene F. Lee Award for most outstanding female senior at UNC, jokes that she learned at Carolina how to shamelessly introduce herself. As a sophomore, she contacted several scientists with National Science Foundation grants and asked to join their research teams in Antarctica. Most said no but two said maybe. Cardman persisted and was able to join one of the groups.

Cardman was a Burch Fellow as an undergraduate and has won a Royster Fellowship and a National Science Foundation grant for her graduate work.  

Working with professor Andreas Teske, Cardman has proposed a research project to look at methane consumption by microbes in Guaymas Basin, a hydrothermal vent site in the Gulf of California. The research is important because methane is the most abundant hydrocarbon in the atmosphere and is a potent greenhouse gas.

If the project gets funded, Cardman would do most of the research at UNC, but Teske also would reserve time on the research vessel, Atlantis, which has a submarine to collect samples from the ocean floor.

“It’s just a completely different world and really fun to think about,” Cardman says, noting that it’s not just space and the ocean that contain mysteries. “There is this whole extra world in the mud at the bottom of the sea.”

Read more on Cardman’s blog, xyzena.com.

Read an article in Endeavors magazine written by Cardman about her research as an undergraduate.

Published December 3, 2012.