Candidate for Mars One Mission Awarded Doctorate
UKZN scientist Dr Adriana Marais, who is among the final 100 shortlisted candidates to possibly go to Mars on a one-way mission, has graduated with a PhD in Quantum Biology.
Marais’ PhD research was on her fascination with the question: ‘what is life?’
The field of quantum biology attracted her interest because it questions the origins of life and what distinguishes living organisms from the inanimate matter of which they are made.
Titled: “A Quantum Protective Mechanism in Photosynthesis”, the research deals with oxygenic photosynthesis, specifically the mechanism that plant systems have developed to protect themselves from the effects of the harmful free radicals through the use of the effective magnetic fields generated by quantum mechanical property spin.
According to the study, this is a clear instance in which a quantum effect plays a macroscopic role essential for life, hinting at the role processes like photosynthesis could have played in the origin of life as well as the potentially important implications this mechanism could have for living organisms in general, as the same free radicals are associated with ageing and disease.
Her research was recently featured in Nature’s Scientific Reports, a prestigious online journal with global reach where notable peer-reviewed research is published with open access. The published work was co-authored with her supervisor Professor Francesco Petruccione, co-supervisor Dr Ilya Sinayskiy of the Centre for Quantum Technology at UKZN and Professor Rienk van Grondelle of the Vrije Universiteit in The Netherlands.
Speaking about her research, Marais said: ‘The relatively new field of quantum biology has revealed how this area of study may contribute to the development of the kind of renewable energy technologies essential for continued existence on this planet, and perhaps others, as well as raising fascinating questions about the origins and nature of life itself.
As far as other planets are concerned, Marais may one day have the chance to investigate the possibility of life existing or having existed on another planet, since she is one of only 100 people shortlisted for consideration to be a part of the final team of four who aim to be the first humans to colonise Mars in 2024.
‘Since I was a child, I always dreamed of living on another planet,’ said Marais of her early dreams of being an astronaut. Marais is excited at the prospect of living out her days on the Red Planet, despite the fact that, if she were to go, it would be a one-way trip with no possibility of return.
‘In my opinion, if life can exist on Earth, in an unimaginably large universe, it must also exist or have existed elsewhere,’ said Marais.
Marais’ spirit of curiosity has stood her in good stead in the completion of her PhD, and continues to motivate her to do more and push her research further. The recipient of a L'Oreal-UNESCO Regional Fellowship for Women in Science in sub-Saharan Africa in 2013, she has been recognised in international circles for her work, having recently been named one of 15 promising young scientists from around the world at the 17th annual L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards in Paris.
Marais, who is with the Centre for Quantum Technology at UKZN, said she had found South Africa an exciting place in which to do science, with many opportunities available and many inspirational people in the field.
‘It feels as though there is a lot of room here to pioneer new areas of research like quantum biology.
‘As a researcher, I feel extremely lucky to be spending my days trying to answer questions I have about the world around me. While we have not yet discovered ‘what life is’, we are certainly lucky to be alive during such an exciting time in the history of life on Earth.’
Marais thanked her parents for always encouraging her curiosity and supporting her endeavours, even a one-way trip to Mars, and expressed gratitude to her supervisors, mentors and teachers for all of their inspiration, wise advice and continual support.
She specifically thanked her co-supervisor, Dr Sinayskiy, and her supervisor Professor Petruccione for their encouragement, participation in and facilitation of discussions both in South Africa and abroad which enabled her research to be as successful as it has been.