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Dr. Dorothy Oehler

Senior Scientist

Currently resides in Houston, TX
doehler [at] psi.edu
Areas of Expertise
Earth, Mars | MSL | Mission science team, Science operations | Astrobiology, Focused Ion Beam, Geology, Geomorphology, Mapping, Optical Microscopy, Raman Spectroscopy, Scanning Electron Microscopy, Secondary Ion Mass Spectroscopy

Research Interests

Dr. Dorothy Z. Oehler is a planetary geologist and Precambrian paleontologist.  She is interested in using martian geomorphology to better understand the history of the planet and identify regions where accumulations of organic materials including methane could occur.  To this objective, she is applying concepts of facies prediction to prioritize habitable sites on Mars that could preserve remnants of an early biosphere.  She is additionally using concepts of subsurface organic maturation (from her experience in petroleum exploration) to locate areas on Mars of potential methane generation, accumulation, and release 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, as such, 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, and she was a Participating Scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory mission from 2012 - 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

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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