Life in the deep
Real People by Mike Wilder
Burlington Times News
December 2, 2007
Bonnie Baxter’s study of Utah’s Great Salt Lake makes her think there could be life on Mars.
Baxter, who grew up in Elon, is a biology professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. Her study of the microscopic organisms that live in the lake has convinced her life is possible in space.
Salt levels in the lake are as high as 30 percent, which is 10 times the salinity of ocean water. That should be too high, it was once thought, for life to exist. But the lake contains tiny organisms called “halophiles.” The name — Greek for “salt-loving” — refers to life forms that thrive where there’s a high concentration of salt.
So what’s the connection to life on Mars?
“There is a salt bed on Mars that was probably a salt lake,” Baxter said. Organisms found living inside salt crystals on the margins of the Great Salt Lake show “they can withstand being all dried up” and can also withstand high exposure to ultraviolet light. That makes her think there could be life in the salt bed on Mars.
“You really open your mind to the possibility of microbes that can live in space conditions,” Baxter said, by exploring the more unusual places where there’s life on Earth.
Baxter is interested in an emerging field of study called astrobiology, which includes a focus on the possibility of life on other planets. Besides Mars, Baxter mentioned Venus, comets and Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, as places where life could exist.
“There are all kinds of potential targets for where microbes could live in space,” she said.
Scientific research such as the work she and her students have done at the Great Salt Lake provide information that wasn’t available during NASA ventures of past decades.
“When the Viking went (to Mars) in 1978,” she said, “We didn’t know there were organisms that could exist in these extreme conditions.”
Baxter is the daughter of Shirley Baxter and the late Robert Baxter and has three bothers, John, Andy and Lynn Baxter. Her father was an administrator and taught at Elon. His positions there included serving as a vice president. For years, her mother was office manager at First Presbyterian Church in Burlington.
Baxter grew up in Elon in a house where the university’s science building is now.
“How funny is that?” she asked.
She graduated from Western Alamance High School in 1984 and from Elon College in 1988.
Even before starting high school, she wanted to be a scientist. Her seventh-grade science teacher, Mary Young, and high school biology teacher Gordon Plumblee were two of the biggest factors in shaping her career goals.
Her family was another. They supported her interest in science even though, Baxter said, girls weren’t especially encouraged in that area at the time.
“I never knew that,” she said. “My parents were always very encouraging.”
She completed her doctorate in genetics and molecular biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1994. She did her post-doctoral research at Washington State University before becoming a professor at Westminster, where she teaches genetics and cell biology. She’s been there for 10 years.