Searching for Aliens When You Feel Like One

For all those non-sciencey people reading this, I apologise in advance for what may seem like a bit of a nosedive into the world of astrobiology. I will try to keep things easy to understand but I do tend to get overexcited when I talk about my passions, and I may get a little too in depth. I hope that this post will at least help explain my “alienation” from the neurotypical world, and if you learn about some cool science at the same time then I definitely don’t see that as a bad thing.

My Introduction to Astrobiology

As someone who decided to study a joint undergraduate degree, I encountered some difficulties when I started thinking about a dissertation project. How would I find a topic that covered my interests from both scientific fields? Thankfully, I ended up with an incredible supervisor who saw my potential as a future astrobiologist.

Astrobiology in simple terms, is the study of life in the universe. When it started, how it evolves and where it may exist. I have learned about extraterrestrial bodies and their potential to harbour life, and I have studied these bodies remotely using similar environments on Earth with their own unique biodiversity. My background as an earth scientist and a biologist helps me understand the interactions between life and the environment around it, and how to look for signs of life in the geochemistry of extraterrestrial bodies (called “biosignatures”).

My Area of Research

The extraterrestrial body that I studied for my dissertation is Jupiter’s fourth-largest moon; Europa. This moon has a crust made of ice with a deep subsurface ocean beneath which has some very cool chemistry. We have observed geysers of water shooting out into space, and some of the material from this has been left on the surface of the moon, letting us use infrared imaging to identify some of the chemicals that make up this distant ocean.

This means that we have a rough idea of what Europa’s ocean is like, and what sort of environments on Earth would be good analogues for this. The analogue I studied was Lost Hammer Spring; a hypersaline (super salty), freezing (like, -5oC type of freezing), sulphur-rich spring in the Canadian Arctic. I studied the microbial community within this spring and compared the types of organisms I found to the chemistry of the spring. I discovered that these organisms use sulphur compounds to create energy, and proposed that this metabolism could be present in potential life existing on Europa.

The Impacts of Astrobiology on a Baby Autistic

It is worth mentioning that I actually got my autism diagnosis right in the middle of my final year of university, while writing my dissertation. I suddenly had an explanation for my social isolation from other people, and it made me look at my science in a whole other light.

There are many different metaphors that people have used to describe what it feels like to be autistic around neurotypical people. The comedian Hannah Gadsby described it as, “being the only sober person in a room full of drunks”. I like this description, but I feel like it doesn’t encompass the stress that we feel on a daily basis to fit in to society.

The best description I can come up with is that I feel like an alien, trying to learn human behaviour and culture enough to fit in without being found out. This highlights the constant fear that autistic people (especially females) feel when we are trying to mask and hide our authentic selves, and the stress of learning behaviour that feels unnatural to you. Neurotypical humans communicate in a language that I don’t always understand, and often they don’t understand me either. Therefore, it seems almost poetic that I should end up studying aliens when I feel like one.

My Future in Science

I think if anything, my diagnosis has pushed me further to pursue a career in research. I’ve found something that I’m good at and that I am passionate about. I want to fulfil this desire to discover something else living out there in our solar system or beyond. I want to find another organism that also doesn’t fit in on our planet. It may give me a sense of contentment to know I’m not the only one.

But then again, my much bigger hope is that when we find extraterrestrial life, that I will realise just how much I have in common with my own species. A tiny sulphate-reducing microbe on Europa will never have seen Harry Potter, or fawned over dinosaur fossils, or played the cello. These are all things I can at least say I have in common with some of you (and if anyone has similar interests please get in touch, I love to gush).

However, if we do find intelligent life that has read or watched Harry Potter then I am definitely ditching you all for them (sorry mum and dad).

I hope that this post was interesting for at least some of you! Whether you are in the field of science or not I hope we can agree that astrobiology is such an awesome area of research. And I want representation for neurodiverse scientists, especially women, to continue to grow in the future. My aim is to be one of the many role models in research that other young autistic women can look up to. Like I have said, it is just one small step at a time, and female autistic scientists are not going anywhere.

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