Astrobiologist Amy Williams shows young women in STEM that the sky is the limit

<p>Amy Williams, Ph.D., astrobiologist and assistant geology professor at UF</p>

Amy Williams, Ph.D., astrobiologist and assistant geology professor at UF

Lying in the bed of her parents’ pickup truck in 1990s South Carolina, marveling at meteor showers across the night sky, a grade-school Amy Williams would often wonder: “Is there another variety of little girl out there, looking back and wondering if she’s also alone in the universe?” 

Today, Williams dedicates her life to exploring that childhood question, as an astrobiologist and assistant geology professor at the University of Florida. And her groundbreaking research, examining signs of ancient life on Mars, has already brought her closer to an answer. 

“There are so many questions we have here on Earth about Mars and if it’s possible that there was life there,” Williams said. “And these questions are all paradigm-shifting if you get answers to them – for us and for our understanding of our place in the universe.” 

Life on Earth 

Science could be found everywhere – and in everything – when Williams was a wide-eyed young girl. Her father would often quiz her on STEM-related facts during car drives. The family would watch cosmic events together in Charleston. And “Star Trek” episodes and “Star Wars” movies were regularly played on the home TV.  

But a pivotal, media-influenced moment came for Williams in 1997 when she saw the film “Contact,” based on a novel by famed astronomer Carl Sagan. Actress Jodie Foster starred as the brilliant and tenacious Dr. Ellie Arroway, a female scientist who – despite tragedies, funding challenges, and skepticism from her colleagues – single-mindedly pursued discovering life beyond Earth. Williams, who was in her school’s Young Astronauts Club at the time, felt like she saw her future self being reflected back from the screen. 

“For a little kid, if you see someone who looks like you in the media, you can say, ‘Oh I can accomplish that. That person did it. I can do it. I can push myself beyond where I am now and I can be what I want to be,’” Williams said. “For me, that person was Dr. Arroway.” 

Rife with inspiration, Williams would forge her own scientific path and add a “doctor” to her name, too. She would earn a bachelor’s degree in Earth and environmental science from Furman University; a master’s degree in Earth and planetary sciences from the University of New Mexico; and a doctoral degree in geology from the University of California, Davis. She would become an expert in organic geochemistry and spearhead efforts to find the building blocks of life on the red planet, spending years trying to detect habitable environments and searching for organic molecules.  

“What is there not to love about Mars – this world that had lakes and rivers and maybe even an ocean once and is now this desolate, cold desert?,” Williams said. “It’s such a mystery, why that world changed the way it did. And its nearest planetary neighbor, Earth, hosts the only life that we know of right now in the universe. I’ve always been interested in whether we’re alone, so if we have this world that’s so close to Earth that’s geologically similar, and it had water at a time when life was evolving on Earth, is it possible that there was life there?”  

Life on Mars 

The drive to decode the infinite mysteries of space fuels Williams’ work every day, and her research into the Mars landscape has yielded serious results.  

Williams went from working as a postdoctoral research associate at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Goddard Space Flight Center to serving as a member of both NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rover science teams. She was named a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellow, and she has collaborated with the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument team to explore the distribution of organic molecules on Mars’ surface. She serves on the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science. And, as a member of the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey, she was one of only 15 Mars scientists to help NASA prioritize its Mars exploration. Williams even helps place UF graduate students on missions to Mars. 

“It’s pretty extraordinary to do this work – to be the first to see a picture from a rover on Mars that no human has ever seen before,” Williams said. “Day to day, you can lose track of that and say, ‘Alright, we just need to process this data or move onto the next thing, etc.,’ but if you just stop and say, ‘No human has ever seen this before and I’m seeing this,’ those are moments that make the whole effort worth it.” 

Because of Williams’ research efforts, the Perseverance rover detected organic carbon in Mars' Jezero crater floor in 2022. The following year, the rover reported on an instrumental detection, possibly consistent with organic molecules on the Martian surface, hinting toward past habitability. The onsite samples that Perseverance collected can be sent back to Earth during future missions, and Williams continues advocating for support for this Mars Sample Return. 

“With appropriate funds for science and exploration, there’s so much more we can learn about Mars as a world. NASA has put out timeframes that, maybe in the 2040s, we might get humans to Mars, but a lot is dependent on funding to enable that kind of exploration,” Williams said. “But I think we will send humans to Mars, maybe even in my lifetime.”  

Being at the forefront of these efforts is a privilege, Williams said, and not one she takes lightly. Much of her work involves creating opportunities for other women to engage in space research. 

“Representation is everything, and I’m so proud to be a woman in STEM. I try extremely hard to recruit women and underrepresented groups to work with me in this exploration of Mars,” Williams said. “I want to make sure everyone has a seat at the table at this really awesome time in our scientific exploration.” 

So many young women – those who are growing up with the same wonderment about outer space that Williams experienced as a kid – might be considering a career in STEM right now. For them, Williams has some advice: “Don’t let anything stop you. Don’t let any apparent barriers stop you. They might slow you down, but you just climb over that fence and you keep going.” 

And – as Williams has shown – worlds can open up to those who keep looking up, keep asking questions, and keep reaching for answers. 

Abby Weingarten February 28, 2024