Out-of-this-world research highlighted at Math and Science event

Brock graduate student Josh Labrie’s new methodology for analyzing images from Mars plays an important role in the search for past life on the Red Planet.

Labrie was one of nearly four dozen graduate students who shared their science, technology, engineering or mathematics research at the Faculty of Mathematics and Science (FMS) Graduate Research Day (GRaD) Conference Friday, Sept. 22 and Saturday, Sept. 23.

The Master of Science in Earth Sciences student gave a poster presentation on his research that uses observations from one of the seven key instruments on board the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Perseverance Mars rover.

His research is being supervised by Earth Sciences Professor Mariek Schmidt, who is a Participating Scientist with the Mars 2020 mission and has experience with more Mars rover missions than anyone in Canada.

Labrie and Schmidt collect data from the rover’s Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), which uses x-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy to determine the elemental composition of surface materials on Mars.

While PIXL observations are incredibly detailed, they are time- and power-intensive, Labrie said.

“This means that when the rover makes observations on a rock, PIXL scans are generally limited to areas smaller than the size of a postage stamp,” he said.

To overcome this limitation, Labrie developed a methodology that makes use of imagery captured by a camera attached to the PIXL. The camera captures an area much larger than a PIXL scan and is multispectral, meaning it takes pictures using near-infrared, green, blue and ultraviolet light, allowing it to capture things the human eye cannot.

“By combining this imagery with PIXL data, we can expand our mineralogical analysis beyond the boundaries of a PIXL scan,” he said. “My methodology locates specific rock-forming minerals using highly detailed PIXL XRF data and uses the appearance of these minerals in multispectral imagery to identify them in parts of the rock that are not analyzed by PIXL.”

Understanding the types and amounts of elements present in Mars rocks allows researchers to determine their mineral composition, which in turn, offers insight into the origin of each rock.

“Through studying the mineralogy of rocks on Mars, we can develop our understanding of the planet’s geological history and evolution, which is an important part of the overarching search for environments on Mars that may have once been hospitable to life,” Labrie said.

Earth Sciences Professor Francine McCarthy, whose research on the proposed Anthropocene made international news earlier this year, delivered a keynote address to kick off the conference.

The annual event is organized by the Graduate Mathematics and Science Students (GRAMSS) to celebrate students’ academic achievements, develop a sense of community among graduate students and showcase FMS research to the Brock community.

GRaD Conference participants gave oral or poster presentations and were judged on their communication, presentation and knowledge translation skills. Fourteen students were awarded prizes:

NORGEN Rising Star award winners

  • Mariana Garrido de Castro, PhD in Biological Sciences
  • Amanda Leonetti, PhD in Biological Sciences — “The Sex- and Task-Specific Effect of m6A Demethylase Fat-Mass and Obesity Associated (FTO) Protein During Non-aversive and Aversive Memory Tasks”

Poster presentation awards

  • First place: Ricardo Alva, MSc in Biological Sciences — “Cellular Responses to Acute Hypoxia in Cancer Cells Cultured Under Physiological Oxygen Levels”
  • Second place: Madison Bell, PhD in Health Sciences — “Increased Greek Yogurt Consumption versus Whey Protein Supplementation on circulating markers of bone metabolism and inflammation in young athletes”
  • People’s Choice: Sabrina Hoford, PhD in Chemistry — “Exploring Electric Field Effects on Diels Alder Cycloadditions”
  • People’s Choice: Alicia Piazza, PhD Neuroscience — “Non-coding RNAs and local protein synthesis in guiding nerve regeneration”
  • People’s Choice: Rozhin Rowshanpour, PhD in Chemistry — “N‑Heterocyclic Carbene Organocatalyzed Redox-Active/Ring Expansion Reactions: Mechanistic Insights Unveiling Base Cooperativity”
  • Honourable Mention: Georgina Gardner, MSc in Biological Sciences — “Culture Shock! Investigating the Significance of Physiological Tumor-Like Conditions in Cultured Cancer Cells”

Oral presentation awards

  • First place: Melanie Denomme Stauder, PhD in Biological Sciences — “Examining the motivation of repetitive barrier interactions in reptiles”
  • Second place: Francine Burke, PhD in Neuroscience — “Perinatal hyperandrogenization as a preclinical murine model of autism spectrum disorder”
  • Honourable mention: Karl Grantham, MSc in Computer Science — “AI enabled drug design and side effect prediction powered by multi-objective evolutionary algorithms & transformer models”
  • Honourable mention: Alex Popescu, MSc in Biological Sciences — “Heads up! Social vigilance behaviour in American crows”
  • Honourable mention: Sunny Qureshi, MA in Psychology — “Long Term Effects of Prenatal Alcohol Exposure on Cognitive Functioning in Male and Female Rats”
  • Honourable mention: Connor Wilson, MSc in Physics — “Localized Vibrational Modes in High-Entropy Oxides”

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