Sciences and Exploration Directorate

Brief Bio


Dr. Luoth (Lu) Chou is an astrobiologist and organic geochemist with an interest in understanding organic biosignatures detection and characterization, planetary exploration, and the search for life in the universe. She is currently a Research Scientist working on the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite onboard the Curiosity Rover in the Planetary Environments Lab at NASA GSFC. This research is focused on characterizing the organic matter composition of Mars in search for habitability and potential signs of life. She is also an Instrument Scientist focusing on the development of front-end separation technologies that can be coupled to sensitive molecular detectors such as mass spectrometers. Prior to her current position, she was a NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP) Fellow, working with Dr. Paul Mahaffy and Dr. Sarah Stewart Johnson (Georgetown University) on the Laboratory for Agnostic Biosignatures project.


Dr. Chou received her B.S. in Microbiology from the University of Maryland at College Park, and her Ph.D. in Earth and Environmental Sciences from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her graduate research was focused on understanding the biogeochemistry of a cryogenic microbial ecosystem in the subsurface of Antarctica, while under the supervision of Dr. Fabien Kenig.

Current Projects


In situ characterization of organic molecules on Mars using the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite

Astrobiology

The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite, onboard the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, is capable of characterizing organic compounds in Martian sediments using thermal volatilization techniques (Evolved Gas Analysis), and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). This research is specifically focused on using wet chemistry derivatizing reagents and GC-MS to help search for non-volatile organic molecules on Mars using SAM.


Agnostic Biosignature Detection Using Mass Spectrometry

Astrobiology

This research is focused on understanding the relationship between mass spectrometry data and chemical complexity. Various experimental and computational tools are used to detect potential biosignatures without pre-supposing the presence of a specific biochemistry. These tools are then applied to flight-capable mass spectrometer instruments, such as the Mars Organic Analyzer on Mars (MOMA), in order to inform the search for organic biosignatures on other planets such as Mars or Titan. 

Education


Ph.D. Earth and Environmental Sciences (2019). University of Illinois at Chicago.

  • Dissertation: "The Organic Matter of Lake Vida, Antarctica: Biogeochemistry of an Icy Planetary World Analog". Advisor: Fabien Kenig.

B.S. Microbiology (2013). (Minor: Astronomy) University of Maryland, College Park. 

  • NASA Earth and Space Science (NESSF) Fellow

Positions/Employment


Research Physical Scientist

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center - Greenbelt, MD

December 2023 - Present


Postdoctoral Research Associate

CRESST II - University of Maryland, Baltimore County

March 2023 - December 2023

Investigating organic matter on Mars using the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite onboard the Curiosity rover as part of the Mars Science Laboratory mission.


NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP) Fellow

USRA - NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

March 2020 - February 2023

Agnostic biosignature detection using mass spectrometry


Postdoctoral Fellow

Georgetown University - Washington, DC

August 2019 - March 2020

Agnostic biosignature detection using mass spectrometry


Graduate Researcher

University of Illinois at Chicago - Chicago, IL

August 2013 - August 2019

The Organic Matter of Lake Vida, Antarctica: Biogeochemistry of an Icy Planetary World Analog


Undergraduate Research Intern

Food and Drug Administration - Laurel, MD

June 2011 - May 2013

The molecular genetics of Listeria monocytogenes, a food-borne pathogen, under cold and salinity stress

Awards


  • NASA Goddard Solar System Exploration Directorate - Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity - Group Award (x2)
  • NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellowship. March 2020.
  • NASA Early Career Collaboration Award. Fall 2018. (Declined)
  • NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship. Fall 2016 - Spring 2019.
  • Chancellor’s Graduate Research Fellowship. University of Illinois at Chicago. Summer 2015-16.
  • On To the Future Travel Award. Geological Society of America. Fall 2015.
  • LAS PhD Travel Award. University of Illinois at Chicago. Fall 2015.
  • Bodmer Science International Travel Award. University of Illinois at Chicago. Summer 2015.
  • Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award. National Association of Geoscience Teachers. Spring 2015.
  • Graduate Research Fellowship. Illinois Space Grant Consortium (ISGC). Fall 2014.
  • The Colonnade Society Undergraduate Scholarship. U of MD Alumni Association. Fall 2012.
  • The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences Scholarship. U of MD. Spr 2012.

Special Experience


  • NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Planetary Winter School. 2021
  • NASA Dragonfly Meeting Observer Program, Participant. November 2020.
  • Santa Fe Institute (2 weeks). Visiting Scientist. November 2019.
  • NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (10 weeks remote, 1 week on site). July 2017. Project Manager for JPL Planetary Science Summer Seminar. Mission design exercise for a Centaur Reconnaissance Mission.
  • Biosignatures and the Search for Life on Mars Summer School (2 weeks). Summer 2016. Iceland.
  • The International Geobiology Course (5 weeks). Summer 2015. California, Nevada, and Catalina Island.
  • The History and Philosophy of Astrobiology Summer School (1 week). Summer 2015. Ven Island, Sweden.
  • Josep Comas i Solà International Summer School in Astrobiology (1 week). Summer 2014. Santander, Spain.

Publications


Refereed

Ni, Z., R. Arevalo, A. Bardyn, et al. L. Willhite, X. Li, L. Chou, A. E. Southard, R. M. Danell, A. Grubisic, J. D. Graham, C. Briois, L. Thirkell, F. Colin, A. Makarov, P. R. Mahaffy, W. B. Brinckerhoff, J. L. Eigenbrode, B. Nunn, and K. Junge. 2023. Detection of Short Peptide Biosignatures of Psychrophiles via Laser Desorption Mass Spectrometry Astrobiology [10.1089/ast.2022.0138]

Theiling, B. P., L. Chou, V. D. Poian, et al. M. Battler, K. Raimalwala, R. Arevalo, M. Neveu, Z. Ni, H. Graham, J. Elsila, and B. Thompson. 2022. Science Autonomy for Ocean Worlds Astrobiology: A Perspective Astrobiology [10.1089/ast.2021.0062]

Chou, L., P. R. Mahaffy, M. G. Trainer, et al. J. L. Eigenbrode, R. Arevalo, W. B. Brinckerhoff, S. A. Getty, N. Grefenstette, V. Da Poian, M. Fricke, C. Kempes, J. Marlow, B. Sherwood-Lollar, H. V. Graham, and S. S. Johnson. 2021. Planetary Mass Spectrometry for Agnostic Life Detection in the Solar System Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences 8 (173): [10.3389/fspas.2021.755100]

Smith, H. H., A. S. Hyde, D. N. Simkus, et al. E. Libby, S. E. Maurer, H. V. Graham, C. P. Kempes, B. Sherwood Lollar, L. Chou, A. D. Ellington, G. M. Fricke, P. R. Girguis, N. M. Grefenstette, C. I. Pozarycki, C. H. House, and S. S. Johnson. 2021. The Grayness of the Origin of Life Life 11 (6): 498 [10.3390/life11060498]

Chou, L., A. E. Murray, and F. Kenig. 2021. Organic sulfones in the brine of Lake Vida, East Antarctica Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 292 409-426 [10.1016/j.gca.2020.10.001]

Carrier, B., D. Beaty, M. Meyer, et al. J. Blank, L. Chou, S. DasSarma, D. Des Marais, J. Eigenbrode, N. Grefenstette, N. Lanza, A. Schuerger, P. Schwendner, H. Smith, C. Stoker, J. Tarnas, K. Webster, C. Bakermans, B. Baxter, M. Bell, S. Benner, H. Bolivar Torres, P. Boston, R. Bruner, B. Clark, P. DasSarma, A. Engelhart, Z. Gallegos, Z. Garvin, P. Gasda, J. Green, R. Harris, M. Hoffman, T. Kieft, A. Koeppel, P. Lee, X. Li, K. Lynch, R. Mackelprang, P. Mahaffy, L. Matthies, M. Nellessen, H. Newsom, D. Northup, B. O'Connor, S. Perl, R. Quinn, L. Rowe, B. Sauterey, M. Schneegurt, D. Schulze-Makuch, L. Scuderi, M. Spilde, V. Stamenković, J. Torres Celis, D. Viola, B. Wade, C. Walker, R. Wiens, A. Williams, J. Williams, and J. Xu. 2020. Mars Extant Life: What's Next? Conference Report Astrobiology 20 (6): ast.2020.2237 [10.1089/ast.2020.2237]

Kenig, F., L. Chou, and D. J. Wardrop. 2019. Comment on “Evaluation of the Tenax Trap in the Sample Analysis at Mars Instrument Suite on the Curiosity Rover as a Potential Hydrocarbon Source for Chlorinated Organics Detected in Gale Crater” by Miller et al. (2015) Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets 124 (2): 644-647 [10.1029/2018je005606]

Howell, S. M., L. Chou, M. Thompson, et al. M. C. Bouchard, S. Cusson, M. L. Marcus, H. B. Smith, S. Bhattaru, J. J. Blalock, S. Brueshaber, S. Eggl, E. R. Jawin, K. Miller, M. Rizzo, K. Steakley, N. H. Thomas, K. R. Trent, M. Ugelow, C. J. Budney, K. L. Mitchell, and L. Lowes. 2018. Camilla: A centaur reconnaissance and impact mission concept Planetary and Space Science 164 184-193 [10.1016/j.pss.2018.07.008]

Chou, L., F. Kenig, A. E. Murray, C. H. Fritsen, and P. T. Doran. 2018. Effects of legacy metabolites from previous ecosystems on the environmental metabolomics of the brine of Lake Vida, East Antarctica Organic Geochemistry 122 161-170 [10.1016/j.orggeochem.2018.05.002]

Stelmach, K. B., M. Neveu, T. J. Vick-Majors, et al. R. L. Mickol, L. Chou, K. D. Webster, M. Tilley, F. Zacchei, C. Escudero, C. L. Flores Martinez, A. Labrado, and E. J. Fernández. 2018. Secondary Electrons as an Energy Source for Life Astrobiology 18 (1): 73-85 [10.1089/ast.2016.1510]

Kenig, F., L. Chou, C. P. McKay, et al. W. A. Jackson, P. T. Doran, A. E. Murray, and C. H. Fritsen. 2016. Perchlorate and volatiles of the brine of Lake Vida (Antarctica): Implication for the in situ analysis of Mars sediments Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets 121 (7): 1190-1203 [10.1002/2015je004964]

Burall, L. S., A. C. Simpson, L. Chou, P. Laksanalamai, and A. R. Datta. 2015. A novel gene, lstC, of Listeria monocytogenes is implicated in high salt tolerance Food Microbiology 48 72-82 [10.1016/j.fm.2014.12.008]

Non-Refereed

Graham, H., K. H. Freeman, L. Chou, and M. J. Pasterski. 2021. Appeal for Improved Sample Selection, Preparation and Interpretation Standards for Organic Biosignature Experiments Performed by Flight Instruments Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023-2032 520

Theiling, B., W. Brinckerhoff, J. Castillo-Rogez, et al. L. Chou, V. D. Poian, H. Graham, S. S. Hosseini, E. Lyness, J. MacKinnon, M. Neveu, K. Raimalwala, and B. Thompson. 2021. Non-Robotic Science Autonomy Development Vol. 53, Issue 4 (Planetary/Astrobiology Decadal Survey Whitepapers) 53 (4): [10.3847/25c2cfeb.ee4e6b64]

Stoker, C., J. G. Blank, P. Boston, et al. L. Chou, S. DasSarma, J. Eigenbrode, N. Grefenstette, D. Northup, A. Schuerger, D. Schulze-Makuch, V. Stamenković, and J. Tarnas. 2021. We Should Search for Extant Life on Mars in this Decade Vol. 53, Issue 4 (Planetary/Astrobiology Decadal Survey Whitepapers) 53 (4): [10.3847/25c2cfeb.36ef5e33]

Chou, L., N. Grefenstette, S. S. Johnson, et al. H. Graham, P. Mahaffy, C. Kempes, J. E. Elsila, E. Libby, A. Ellington, E. Anslyn, T. Hoehler, P. Girguis, L. Cronin, W. Brinkerhoff, and B. S. Lollar. 2021. Towards a more universal life detection strategy Vol. 53, Issue 4 (Planetary/Astrobiology Decadal Survey Whitepapers) 53 (4): [10.3847/25c2cfeb.53a24171]

Teaching Experience


  • Teaching Assistant. University of Illinois at Chicago. (Fall 2013 - Spring 2016). Global Environmental Change. Earth, Energy, and the Environment. Stats. Methods in Earth and Environmental Science
  • Teaching Assistant. Princeton University (John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth) (Summer 2013). Epidemiology.
  • Teaching Assistant. University of Maryland, College Park. (Fall 2012 , Spring 2013). Principles of Microbiology.

Professional Service


  • NASA Review Panel. Group Chief, Panelist, External Panelist, Executive Secretary (2014, 2018(x2), 2019, 2020(x3), 2021)
  • Network for Life Detection (NfoLD). Early Career Council - Lead Team Member (February 2020 - present)
  • Conference Organization:
  • AbGradCon2022 (canceled)
  • Core Organizing Committee. Coordinate, organize, plan, and co-chair the early-career focused conference in Astrobiology. Develop the scientific program, coordinate the logistics, and work to secure funding for 100+ attendees including domestic and international participants.
  • Astrobiology Science conference 2022
  • Session Organizer and Session Chair. "General Principles of Life: Towards understanding universal biology"
  • American Geophysical Union 2020
  • Session Organizer and Session Chair. “Detecting life through space and time: from geochemistry to biology” 
  • Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion:
  • NASA Goddard Association of Postdoctoral Scientists (NGAPS+). Member. 2021
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Subcommittee
  • NASA Mission Equity Request for Information. 2021
  • Bystandard Awareness Training Workshop. 2021
  • NASA Goddard SSED Diversity and Inclusion Working Group. Member. 2021
  • Activities resulted in concrete action plans to address workplace disparities, reports that audit inequitable policies and climate culture, and ongoing surveys and deliverables that aim to enhance the diversity and equity of NASA
  • Unlearning Racism in Geosciences (URGE). Member 2021.
  • NASA Goddard Solar System Exploration Division and Georgetown University 
  • Reviewer. Astrobiology, Icarus, Frontiers, Science Advances

Talks, Presentations and Posters


Invited

Searching for Life-as-we-don't-know-it Using Planetary Mass Spectrometry

May 2023

Pennsylvania State University. Earth Talks Series.


Leveraging Planetary Mass Spectrometry for Agnostic Life Detection

June 2022

Astrobiology Science Conference 2022. Invited talk for Session: Detecting Life-as-we-don’t-know-it


Signatures of Life in Cold, Subsurface Brines: An Astrobiology Analog for Icy Planetary Worlds

March 2022

Georgia Institute of Technology, Astrobiology & Planetary Science Seminar


Signatures of Life in Cold, Subsurface Brines: An Astrobiology Analog for Icy Planetary Worlds

June 2021

Invited talk for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Department of Marine Chemistry & Geochemistry. Departmental Seminar.


Biosignatures of Life-as-we-don't-know-it

May 2021

Invited talk for University of Florida, Department of Geological Sciences, Astrobiology Seminar.


Agnostic Biosignatures Detection Using Mass Spectrometry

April 2021

Invited talk for University of Maryland, College Park. Department of Geology. Departmental Seminar.


Universal Life Detection Strategies and applicability to Mars missions

December 2020

Invited talk for the NASEM Planetary Science & Astrobiology Decadal Survey Panel on Mars


Biosignatures, familiar and unfamiliar

November 2020

Invited lecture for Astrobiology course at Williams College


Agnostic Biosignatures Detection using Mass Spectrometry

August 2020

Solar System Exploration Division Science Seminar for the Director. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center


Environmental Geochemistry: Introduction to Organic Geochemistry

March 2017

UIC Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences


Astrobiology: in search of who’s out there by looking at who we are

March 2016

UIC Biology Colloquium

Other

Selected Public Outreach


NASA Goddard Engage Session. Mars Science Laboratory 10th Landing Anniversary

September 2022 - September 2022

Served as a panelist to discuss the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite and its scientific and technical achievements in studying Mars in the past decade


NASA Goddard CRESST II Undergraudate Interaction Day

November 2021 - November 2021

Gave an lecture to a number of undergraduate students on NASA research as part of the CRESST Internship program


Astrobiology Lecture at the Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart (Bethesda, Maryland)

May 2021 - May 2021

Gave an interactive lecture on bioorganic chemistry and how to search for life on Mars


Interview with NASA Goddard SSED Science Exhibit Team

November 2020 - November 2020

Subject matter expert for content development for the new planetary exhibit at the Goddard Visitor Center


Visits to Chicago Montessori School

May 2017 - May 2019

Co-create lesson plans and in-class demonstrations of geology, and planetary science. Visited the Chicago Montessori School multiple times over a period of three years.


Visit to Brentano Math and Science Academy

2018 - 2018


SAGANet.org Astrobiology “expert”.

September 2018 - September 2019

Volunteer as an Astrobiology "Expert" at SAGANet.org. Previously monthly newsletter organizer.


AbGradCon Outreach Event. “An Evening of Wonder – Life and Art on Earth and Beyond”

July 2018 - July 2018

Volunteered as an astrobiologist to speak with the general public at Georgia Tech University


March for Science Chicago - Social Media Organizer and Science Marshal

March 2017 - May 2017

Part of the organizing group for the March for Science at Chicago event. On April 22nd, 2017, approximately 60,000+ people attended the march.