Does life exist elsewhere in the universe?
It’s a question as old as time.
And Amy Williams ’07 is trying to find the answer through her work with NASA’s Mars rover project.
“I have always wondered if we’re alone in the universe and I’ve always been intrigued with space,” said Williams, now an assistant professor of geology at the University of Florida.
“Serving on the mission … searching for life beyond Earth,” she added, “it’s just beyond exciting to have that opportunity.”
A South Carolina native, Williams grew up outside of Charleston with dreams of going into biology and pre-med. She fell in love with Furman during a high school tour of colleges.
“Nothing else could compare. There was something about the feel of the campus and the people I met,” she said. “It was the first and only school I applied to. And I got in.”
Her first semester, she signed up for an earth and environmental sciences course and was converted. She changed her major. And while working with her mentor, Brannon Andersen, who is the Rose J. Forgione Professor of Earth, Environmental, and Sustainability Sciences, she realized that she wanted to go into academia.
“I said, ‘I want to work with students, to do research, to teach,’” she said. “This is the path for me.”
Andersen said that while he’s mentored many outstanding students, Williams stands out in several ways, including her sense of curiosity, drive and intellect.
“Watching her career blossom and seeing her become the scientist she is today, successful in career and life, is why I love being a professor at Furman,” he said. “I can’t express how proud I am of Amy.”
After graduation, Williams attended the University of New Mexico to study earth and planetary science and later got her Ph.D. in geology from the University of California, Davis.
For her Ph.D., she researched how microbes, like bacteria, can be preserved in the geologic rock record and detected with rover-like instruments. In her post-doctoral work, she joined the Mars Curiosity rover mission, researching microbes like bacteria with an instrument that can remotely detect organic carbon, which makes up the basis for life.
“When I talk about life on Mars, we’re talking about microorganisms,” she said. “If there were plants and animals, we would have seen them already.”
That led her to geobiology, and post-doctoral work as a rover collaborator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Historically, Mars was dotted by lakes and rivers and maybe even oceans, much like Earth, she said. So it’s possible life arose there. If it did, it may still exist in the subsurface or have gone extinct. She is part of a team working to answer some of these questions.
In 2020, Williams joined NASA’s newest Mars rover mission, Perseverance, as a participating scientist and astrobiologist. Perseverance landed on the Red Planet this past February to much fanfare.
The Mars Sample Return program plans to bring geologic samples to Earth in the early 2030s for scientists worldwide to study for signs of life, she said.
“This will revolutionize not only Mars science, but our understanding of the solar system,” she said. “Nothing like this has ever been done before on Mars.”
Williams credits Furman and the mentoring she received for launching her career.
“I didn’t know about these research opportunities until I was truly guided to them by my mentors,” she said. “The Furman experience and engagement truly … made all the difference in the world.”
So how does Williams answer the question about other life in the universe?
She ponders the vastness of space and the number of galaxies, and quotes famed astronomer Carl Sagan:
“The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”