Faculty Star Becomes Planetary Protector

In this photo, Lisa Pratt, wearing red, round-frame glasses and a black-and-white plaid jacket, smiles for the camera against the backdrop of a limestone campus building. Her square photo is set foreground with a grayscale, circular illustration of the moon phases as the background.
Graphic by Amy Kirchner, IU Foundation. Photo by Anna Powell Teeter.

The title of “Planetary Protection Officer” might sound like something straight out of Star Trek—but it’s not.

It’s all science, hold the fiction.

NASA recently named Lisa Pratt, IU astrobiologist and provost professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, to the position. For decades she’s studied the tenacity of microbial life in the most hostile, desolate conditions on Earth—often through NASA’s support. The research has made her uniquely qualified for the planetary protection role, in which Pratt will lend her expertise to space travel.

What does a planetary protection officer protect against? Interstellar cross-contamination, in which foreign contaminants are introduced to planets through space exploration.

The gravity of the work can’t be overstated.

“I have a burden of responsibility to figure out how we collaborate with all the other nations and individuals who are capable of reaching Mars,” said Pratt, “… before we bring intact pieces or bits and spores of Earth organisms to Mars and inadvertently inoculate a habitable planet.”

With Pratt’s guidance, today’s space travelers can avoid that catastrophe and leave a smaller bacterial footprint across the galaxy—paving the way for others to continue exploring the farthest reaches of space, and protecting all the stops along the way.

This article was originally published in the fall 2018 issue of Imagine magazine.

Written By
A. Price
A resident of the Hoosier state since grade school, Alex forged a friendship with “tried and true” IU upon becoming a writer at the IU Foundation.