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Jacek Wierzchos
Jacek Wierzchos

Chemist
Space Science Division
University of Lerida, Spain

Who I am and what I do
Since 1993, I have been Head of the Electron Microscopy Service of the University of Lleida, Spain. Effectively, microscopy and microanalysis are my tools for searching for microbial life, microbial fossils and their traces in extreme and Mars-like environments in both terrestrial and extraterrestrial lithic materials. My goal is to gain knowledge on lithobiontic and extremoresistant microbial ecosystems and then design new investigation strategies so that, if present, no sign of life, past or present, will go unnoticed.

Areas of expertise
Mineralogy, Geochemistry, Geomicrobiology, Electron Microscopy, Microanalysis, Biodeterioration, Lithobiontic microorganisms, Micropaleontology, Astro/Exobiology.

What helped me prepare me for this job
First of all curiosity and a desire for knowledge of the truth. Such knowledge “lights the way” for science and is the basis for the progress I have made in all the above areas of expertise.

My education and training
I hold an MSc in Chemistry from the University of M. Sklodowska-Curie in Lublin, Poland. After my Master’s degree, I worked in the areas of mineralogy and soil structure at the Agrophysics Institute, PAN, in Lublin, where I obtained a PhD.

My career path
My background in environmental microbiology, geomicrobiology and also microscopy is the result of my work at the Environmental Science Center, CSIC, Madrid with Prof. Carmen Ascaso (CSIC, Madrid) supported by a post-doc fellowship.
In 1993, I took on the post of Head of the Electron Microscopy Service of the University of Lleida, Spain. In 1997, Prof. Imre Friedmann of Florida State University invited C. Ascaso and me to collaborate with him in two challenging projects. In the first of these, I became involved in working on the microbiology of the extreme environments of the dry valleys of Antarctica. In the second project, I became a member of the research team that searched for traces of life in the famous meteorite from Mars – ALH84001. I was invited by Chris McKay to participate in the expedition to the Atacama Desert in 2005 and to the Negev desert in the spring of 2006.

What I like most about my job
As a scientist whose daily work tools are microscopes, I often feel like an explorer of the microcosmos. My microscopy studies constantly remind me of how small microbes and their environments really are and that microscopy is the key to understanding this world and therefore to finding any sign that could indicate the presence of life. What is really exciting about my job is the privilege of seeing what nobody else has seen and consequently of thinking about what nobody else has thought about.

My advice to anyone interested in this occupation
Only two criteria will help us identify life: structure and any unique chemical features. Microscopy, capable of simultaneous imaging and spectroscopy, is especially useful for identifying life’s signatures. However, if you adopt a routine approach to microscopy, your output will be low. If you try to be innovative, you can only do so in small steps by gradually robbing the sample of its secrets using electrons as your tool. This is not always possible and never easy, but only when we can easily recognize life in Earth’s environments, we will be prepared to search for life outside our planet.


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Editor: Brian Day
NASA Official: Liza Coe
Last Updated:June, 2006
Students Contact: Jennifer Heldmann
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Teachers Contact: Liza Coe
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