Putting Astrobiology into Practice with Srishti Kashyap '13

Srishti Kashyap '13

By Suk-Lin Zhou '14

It’s not unusual for Mount Holyoke students to pave a new path when there isn't an existing one to follow. This is especially true for astronomy and biology major Srishti Kashyap '13: Although astrobiology is not a major offered by the College, that hasn’t stopped her from pursuing her interests.

"Astrobiology is a new and upcoming field of study that draws from all the major fields of science. It's the study of the origins of life on Earth, life itself, and the possibility of life elsewhere,” explains Kashyap, who is from New Delhi, India. “Astrobiologists want to know what it takes for life to emerge and thrive on Earth, and if those same rules and mechanisms apply to systems beyond Earth."

Sponsored and funded by both the UAF and DAAD Rise program, Kashyap was a laboratory research intern at the German Aerospace Center in Cologne last summer. Under the mentorship of a postdoctorate student, she worked on projects involving the use of bacteria that could live in extreme environments as models to study for possible survival in Mars simulation experiments. While her mentor assigned the experimental projects, Kashyap was responsible for giving structure to them.

"There was a lot of trial and error, and it also took a lot of time to do any experiment, so I was constantly working. Whenever I was waiting for the results of one project, I was already working on setting up an experiment for another project. And of course, there are those days in the lab where things don't work, and I would need to find other protocols or appropriate procedures that would work for my mentor's experimental plans," she says.

The majority of Kashyap's projects involved fluorescence microscopy, which she had previous experience with at MHC.

"Much of my work involved using a very high-tech fluorescence microscope, and even on days when I was looking at the wrong things, my work was exciting nonetheless," she said.

At the end of her internship, Kashyap's mentor praised her lab reports for their excellence and great analytic approach. She credits her lab and classroom experience at Mount Holyoke for their quality.

"Part of my success definitely came from the skills I gained from all the lab reports I’ve had to churn out, and from the great knowledge, support, and guidance of my various professors. In particular, Professor (Darby) Dyar from astronomy—she has always supported me and my wild interests!" she says.

Since having this research experience, Kashyap is doing all she can to continue pursuing her interests in astrobiology.

"Since it's an interdisciplinary field, I want to get as much as I can out of my college education. I want to explore other areas of the sciences that are going to be useful for my field of study," she says.

More recently, Kashyap has been studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where she has focused on geology. She is keeping in contact with her mentor from the German Aerospace Center, and she plans to continue research in astrobiology after graduation. She says she hopes one day to conduct research on bacteria living in deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

For now, she plans on learning all that she can.

"This is college, and I can explore as much as I want," she said.