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Seeking life beyond Earth via single molecule detection




12: Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

Faculty Supervisor:

Maria T. Zuber

Faculty email:


Apply by:

February 10, 2020


Send email with “UROP” in subject line, resume/CV, and short statement of interest by Feb 10 to chrisc@mit.edu.

Project Description

Our group is working on life detection instruments for Mars and Ocean Worlds utilizing single molecule detection, including 1) nanopore-based nucleic acid sequencing, and 2) fully electronic single molecule detection. Together, these two approaches will target life as we know it, and life as we don’t know it. 1) Contribute to engineering development of these life detection instruments through engineering design, fabrication, and testing (including in a thermal vacuum chamber and during a parabolic flight). Useful skills: SOLIDWORKS, EAGLE or other printed circuit board design tools, soldering, circuit board assembly, microcontroller programming, 3d printing). 2) Carry out wet lab experiments to study organic biomarker preservation, extraction, and detection (hypersaline lakes; Atacama Desert; synthetic analogs of Mars). 3) Apply bioinformatics analyses to characterize the limits of life. Useful skills: Unix, Docker, python, MATLAB. 4) Use statistics and machine learning approaches to analyze single molecule data. You will have an opportunity to work with an interdisciplinary team, to gain expertise in a variety of disciplines, to develop skills applicable to future research and industry, carry out experiments, build hardware, test under space-like conditions, and ultimately, deploy space hardware. The sky is not the limit.


You must be highly motivated, technically excellent, with strong analytical and problem-solving skills, able to work independently and contribute to an interdisciplinary team, and have excellent communication and interpersonal skills. Experience in aerospace / mechanical / electrical / biological engineering, biology, geology, or a related field is a plus. We also highly value creativity, drive, and dedication to the search for life beyond Earth. Experience with molecular biology, embedded systems, microcontrollers, mechanical design, thermal modeling, space instrumentation, and other relevant skills valued but not required. First-year students welcome.