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Dr. Dorothy Oehler

doehler's picture

Senior Scientist

Currently resides in Houston, TX
doehler [at] psi.edu
Areas of Expertise
Targets: Earth, Mars
Disciplines/Techniques: Astrobiology, Focused Ion Beam, Geology, Geomorphology, Mapping, Optical Microscopy, Petrology, Scanning Electron Microscopy, Secondary Ion Mass Spectroscopy
Missions: MSL
Mission Roles: Mission science team, Science operations

Research Interests

Dr. Dorothy Z. Oehler is a planetary geologist and Precambrian paleontologist.  She is interested in using martian geology to provide insight into the history of the planet and to identify regions where accumulations of organic materials, including methane, could occur.  To this end, she is applying facies prediction to prioritize habitable sites on Mars that could preserve remnants of potential early biospheres.  She additionally is applying knowledge of methane generation, trapping/storage, and seepage in the subsurface of Earth to predict areas on Mars where subsurface accumulations of methane (abiotic and/or biotic) might exist and where periodic releases would be likely from such accumulations to the atmosphere.

Dr. Oehler is also interested in seeking ways to identify biosignatures of potential extraterrestrial life.  This includes establishing new criteria for identifying bona fide biosignatures of fragmentary remains of primitive life forms.  In this regard, she has studied some of the oldest organic microfossils on Earth, using both Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry (SIMS) to determine their carbon isotopic composition (to assess their origin and significance to evolution of life on our planet) and Nano-scale SIMS (NanoSIMS) to chemically map, at the sub-micron scale, some of Earth's earliest life forms. Results from these studies provide insights into the most primitive lifeforms on Earth and may be applicable to recognizing poorly preserved remnants of primitive life that might be encountered in planetary exploration.

Professional History

Dr. Oehler received her Ph. D. (cum laude) from the Department of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles, with specializations in Precambrian life, organic microfossils and isotopic evidence of ancient life.  After that, she spent 3 years in Australia working for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) as a Research Scientist studying organic matter in Proterozoic microfossils associated with metal-sulfide deposits.  Upon returning to the U.S., Dr. Oehler worked for Conoco Inc. for 22 years as a source rock specialist, where she investigated the occurrence of organic matter, oil, and methane in basins all over the world. 

Since 2003, she has been working in planetary science, with emphasis on Mars.  She was at Johnson Space Center from 2003 - 2016, was a Participating Scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity Rover) Mission from 2012 through 2016, and has been a Senior Scientist at PSI since 2016.

In 2012, Dr. Oehler was named the Distinguished Alumna of the year from the Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of California at Los Angeles, and in 2016, she was an invited to participate in the Methane on Mars workshop, sponsored by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at Caltech.

Dr. Oehler's publications (listed in her Professional Web Page) include papers discussing 1) locations on Mars for methane generation, trapping, and episodic release;  2) evidence for ancient martian spring deposits, mud volcanoes, and a northern ocean; and 3) biosignatures of terrestrial life forms that may have astrobiological significance. 

Honors and Awards

2017      NASA Group Achievement Award - MSL Extended Mission-1 Science & Operations Team

2015      NASA Group Achievement Award - MSL Prime Mission Science & Operations Team

2013      NASA Group Achievement Award - MSL Science Office Development & Operations Team

2012      Distinguished Alumna Award - Department of Earth and Space Sciences, UCLA

2012      NASA - Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) - Participating Scientist Grant (4 yr) - PI

2008      Astromaterials Research & Exploration Science, Johnson Space Center - Mission Enabling Science Grant (4 yr) - PI

2007      NASA - Exobiology Grant (3 yr) – Science PI

2006      NASA - NPP Program Senior Fellow (3 yr) - PI

2004      Visiting Scholar Award - Australian Center for Astrobiology - PI

2003      NASA Exobiology Grant (3 yr) - Co-I

1973      Graduate Woman of the Year - University of California at Los Angeles

1967      Phi Beta Kappa

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