Deep cave scientist visits Coe College Thursday

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To do her work, extreme environmental scientist Penelope Boston sometimes has to enter caves filled with poisonous gases, where sulfuric acid drips on her while she works.

At other times, she and other scientists have to wear ice-packed suits to work in the intense heat of the Naica cave system in Mexico. The Naica caves hold some of the largest natural crystals in the world, some as long as 36 feet.

Working in such extraordinary environments is all in a day’s work for Boston, who is fascinated by how microorganisms survive and thrive in the world’s most severe environments.

Studying microorganisms has a wide range of implications, from developing new pharmaceuticals to the search for life on Mars, she said.

“Microorganisms are helping us anticipate the extreme conditions here that might be the norm on other planets,” she said.

Boston will share some of her experiences and her work during a public talk at Coe College in Cedar Rapids on Thursday. The lecture begins at 7:30 p.m. in Hickok Hall.

A professor of earth and environmental sciences and director of Cave and Karst Studies at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Boston studies the microorganisms that live in the subsurface of the earth.

Her research focus includes geomicrobiology and astrobiology in extreme environments, human life support in space and planetary environments and robotics for exploration and science in extreme Earth and extraterrestrial environments.

She said since the things she studies are very interdisciplinary, her talk will touch on a wide range of topics. With appearances ranging from TED Talks to PBS and National Geographic, she said she aims to appeal to the general public, not just other scientists.

“I want to give the audience a broad flavor, the fun parts, the punch lines — not the tedious details,” she said.

Boston is a fellow of the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts and serves on the NASA Planetary Protection Subcommittee. She received the 2010 Lifetime Science Achievement Award from the National Speleological Society and was named a Caving Legend (2012) by the Fort Stanton Cave Project.

She will visit Coe as a Phi Beta Kappa visiting scholar.

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