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UKZN Doctoral Student on Shortlist for Mars

UKZN Doctoral Student on Shortlist for Mars

Thirty-year-old Quantum Biology PhD student Ms Adriana Marais is one of 25 South Africans on a 1 058-strong shortlist to go to Mars on a no return basis.

The Mars One expedition plans to establish a permanent human settlement on the red planet by sending crews of four every two years, beginning in 2024.

Marais, a member of the Quantum Research Group established by Professor Francesco Petruccione, says since a child she has imagined that if offered the opportunity to go into space to experience what was beyond what mankind had seen before, she would go -  despite the prospect of not returning.

‘I decided that I wanted to be an astronaut, and planned to study astrophysics or aeronautical engineering at university. I was then drawn to physical studies on quite a different scale and became fascinated with quantum mechanics.

‘My research interests have led me via the field of my PhD to the famous question: What is Life? In my opinion, if life can exist on Earth, in an unimaginably large universe, it must also exist or have existed elsewhere.’

Marais is currently busy completing her PhD thesis, titled: ‘Quantum effects in photosynthesis’. It deals with those processes occurring in photosynthetic organisms where quantum mechanics plays a role. Recent research that she has been involved in has investigated the potential relation between magnetic field effects and mechanisms of protection against harmful free-radicals in photosynthesis. This research may have important implications for living organisms in general as the same free radicals are associated with ageing and disease.

Her early dream of going to space and her research into quantum biology led Marais to apply to be one of the 24 humans who will pioneer life on Mars after the final round of selections. The application process was lengthy, with the Mars One initiative looking for astronaut candidates who display resiliency, adaptability, curiosity, ability to trust and creativity/ resourcefulness. After applying, Marais said she believed she would be selected but receiving the news of her selection for the second round produced a feeling of terror as well as indescribable excitement.

‘For me, finding evidence of life on Mars would be one of the most important possible discoveries for humanity. I would be prepared to sacrifice my personal joys, sorrows and day-to-day life for this idea, this adventure, this achievement, that would not be my own, but that of all humanity.’

Discussing her research, Marais said: ‘The relatively new field of quantum biology has revealed how this area of study may contribute to the development of the kind of renewable energy technologies essential for continued existence on this planet, and perhaps others, as well as raising fascinating questions about the origins and nature of life itself.’

She said South Africa was an exciting place in which to do science because of the many opportunities and inspirational people in the field. ‘It feels as though there is a lot of room here to pioneer new areas of research like quantum biology, while in other parts of the world there may be less funding and more competition to do similar things.’

She says she is grateful for the unwavering encouragement of her supervisor, Professor  Petruccione, as well as his participation in and facilitation of discussions both in South Africa and abroad without which her research would not have been possible.

‘I think I must be a kind of extremophile, thriving in challenging situations, and in this sense moving to Mars would be an ideal opportunity. As a researcher in physics and more recently biology, of course I have a number of scientific concerns about the mission, aside from questions of how habitable the living units will be.

‘There are serious concerns for the first Martians, including the effects of radiation exposure, reduced gravitational and magnetic fields, and the sufficiency of medical supplies and nutrition in dealing with the health implications of being there. Also, among other social issues, the ownership of and accountability for actions on Mars also need to be addressed.”

As for the next steps in the process, candidates are now awaiting further instructions after the submission of their medical reports next month. Marais said interviews with Mars One representatives may follow, which will be televised as part of the documentary broadcast through which the mission hopes to get its funding.

‘I think that with such an initially limited population, the first Martians will need to be multi-talented, quick-learning, extremophile-types. How these kinds of people will interact in close quarters will of course be the interesting part, and I look forward to meeting the other candidates, who I think must be among some of the most interesting people on Earth.’

-          Christine Cuénod



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