Peter Doran, PhD, believes there is life on other planets.
Quick to explain that he doesn’t mean little green men, the hydrogeologist theorizes that microorganisms likely exist every place there’s water, including the ice-covered lakes of Jupiter’s moon Europa.
“Everywhere there’s water on Earth, there’s life,” Doran said. “It seems reasonable that, if we look to a moon of Jupiter, and there’s water there, there could very well be life. It happened here.”
Doran is the first person to hold the John Franks Endowed Chair in the Department of Geology & Geophysics, a title he doesn’t hold lightly. The Franks chair honors the legacy of John Franks, a 1949 geology graduate and founder of Franks Petroleum Inc. A valued supporter of LSU and the geology program, Franks was a founding member of the LSU Geology Endowment, and a member of the LSU Foundation Board of Directors, LSU Board of Supervisors and Tiger Athletic Foundation Stadium Club.
“I see my job as being a science ambassador for the university,” Doran shared, adding that he views the position as an opportunity to raise the profile of LSU and help build the “already really good” geology department.
In October, Doran will be an ambassador on the Ross Ice Shelf, a previously unresearched layer of ice over the Ross Sea in Antarctica. This three-month-long research trip will be the first time he’s worn purple and gold on the continent, but it will mark his 16th visit since he began researching the area 20 years ago. The professor specializes in studying lakes, particularly studying life in the ice-covered waters of polar regions like Antarctica.
“There are lakes on this planet that are in the coldest and driest environment you can find. Yet, there’s lakes and there’s life living in those lakes, and doing quite well actually,” Doran eagerly explained, adding, “There’s so much more to discover and learn. That’s what keeps me excited. It’s a hard continent to research because it’s so vast, and it’s hard to get to, and there’s extreme weather. There’s going to be a lot of work to be done for a long time.”
The research he and his colleagues will perform, like most of Doran’s research, gives the world a better understanding of what’s happened in the past, what happens now, and what will likely happen in the future. Doran operates 15 climate stations in Antarctica that show climate change in the area.
“This work on the ice shelf, I see that as really important,” he said. “It’s defining a whole new ecosystem that’s completely unexplored and trying to figure out ‘What are the limits of life?’ and ‘What is possible in our universe?’ I find that a fascinating question.”
Though spending three months near the South Pole doesn’t sound glamorous, Doran says he didn’t choose this life—“It chose me. I’ve always loved the outdoors, so it was natural for me to get involved in studying the natural environment. I just kept wanting to get more and more remote and more and more extreme. I just do what I find to be interesting. That’s why I love my job.”
Published in Cornerstone Summer and Fall 2015.