Donna Viola

University of Maryland
Baltimore, MD


Principal Investigator: Chris McKay
Project: Life on Mars: Past, Present and Future

Education and Experiences:

Someday, I want to see the world - from outer space! But, unlike many aspiring astronauts, that hasn't been a dream of mine since I was small enough to sit on my grandpa's knee. Rather, I came to that decision at the ripe old age of 16 - shortly after I spontaneously decided that I wanted to be a scientist instead of an author or a journalist. That change was spurred by a few factors, including my high school chemistry class and my involvement in my school's Science Olympiad team. I went through several phases of wanting to study all kinds of science - chemistry, evolutionary biology, entomology, astrophysics, marine biology, geology. My fascination with astrobiology emerged from a growing interest in science fiction, and was bolstered by the fact that it could satiate almost all of my interdisciplinary scientific interests.

I am currently a junior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where I have designed my own major in Astrobiology through the Interdisciplinary Studies department. Throughout my undergraduate career, I have sought a strong scientific background both inside and outside the classroom. My coursework has spanned across a wide range of disciplines, as has my practical experience. I spent the summer of 2008 as an intern in the Entomology Department at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, which involved assisting with a beetle biodiversity project. In 2009, I participated in the SETI Institute REU in Astrobiology, where I analyzed the fluvial geomorphology of Titan using Cassini RADAR imagery. I have also been a part of two crew rotations at the Mars Desert Research Station in the Utah desert, where one of my projects included collecting specimens of endolithic organisms. In addition, I have been working in a research lab in the Biology department at Johns Hopkins University, where I've been analyzing soil samples from the Atacama Desert.

Many of my experiences have been geared towards preparing myself for graduate school and an eventual career. Once I complete my undergraduate degree, I plan on pursuing a PhD in planetary science or astrobiology. After that, I would like to be a research scientist, studying the potential for past or present life on Mars - and, if the opportunity presents itself, I would love to be a part of one of the early missions to Mars to search for life firsthand.

I'm the kind of person who loves being busy. Therefore, I am also very involved on campus outside of my academic and research responsibilities. I am a captain of the UMBC Women's Rugby Club, vice president of the Interdisciplinary Studies Council of Majors, an active member of the Astronomy Club, and a tutor for General Chemistry. If I ever find a spare moment, I enjoy reading, swimming, climbing trees, and adventuring.