An independent researcher at Imperial College and research fellow for the Royal Society, she’s one of the BBC’s chosen faces when it comes to science. The astrobiologist Zita Martins is looking for signs of life on meteorites and preparing missions to Mars.
The atmosphere is buzzing, but all it takes to hush the chatting voices is for someone to have the nerve to sit at the piano. It’s impossible to predict what musical style the players will choose or how talented they’ll be, but that just makes the visit even more interesting. Anyone can fill the beautiful tearoom of one of London’s greatest museums, the Victoria & Albert, with music. But that’s not the only reason Zita Martins loves coming here. “The scones are really good,” she smiles.
A researcher at Imperial College in South Kensington, there are places she enthuses over just around the corner, like the Natural History Museum, where only this morning she was showing “her” meteorites. These chunks of rock are real windows into the past in the search for answers to two fundamental questions: How did life on Earth come about? Are we really alone in the universe? The astrobiologist’s mission is to try and answer them.
This exotic-sounding profession began to take shape during her Chemistry course, but there’d already been signs pointing towards the sky before that. “Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ series had a great influence on me,” reveals Zita Martins. So much so that her idea of becoming a ballerina began to lose ground and between the ages of 15 and 19 she devoted her time to learning Russian. “I still didn’t really know what my path would be, but I was absolutely fascinated by space and Russia was very important.” Nevertheless, it was only when she finished her degree at Lisbon’s Technical University that the path became clearer. “I decided to write to NASA and ask what there was in the area of astrochemistry or astrobiology and they recommended a group in Leiden, where I went to do my 5th year internship.”
She enjoyed the experience in Holland so much that she went back for another four years to do a PhD, after managing to get a grant from Portugal’s Science and Technology Foundation. To this she added mastery of another less obvious language to her curriculum. Between talks, conferences and classes at other universities, travel is an important part of a scientist’s life. And Zita Martins likes to speak other languages, in addition to English, which she improved during the year she was guest scientist at NASA.
Arriving in London
The invitation to become a research associate at Imperial College came in 2007, but the connection became closer in October 2009. At that time she became a research fellow for the Royal Society. One of the most prestigious support institutions for scientific knowledge financed her studies for eight years. And that’s how the scientist made the United Kingdom her more permanent home.
The scientific fame she achieved in the meantime earned her the BBC’s recognition as a specialist, and they chose her to be one of the female faces to talk about science. But she’d always had a sense of mission when it came to spreading knowledge. “It’s really important to communicate and to do so to everyone,” she argues. “I don’t agree when they say that people only want to see football: in fact, you just have to look at viewer ratings for science programmes to see that there’s a huge interest in these subjects.”
By now it’s easy to imagine that if there’s one word that doesn’t fit into her daily life it’s routine. “I might have to review articles, or be on a thesis defence committee, or be teaching a specific subject,” she explains. But also spending long hours in the laboratory and knowing how to resist frustration, of course. “You can never lose sight of the big picture, especially at these times, and you have to like what you do. I love it!”
What motivates her is trying to find the answer to what Science and Nature classified as one of the 25 great questions of our century: “At the moment all we know is that there’s life on Earth. How did we and all human beings get here?”
A substantial part of her work consists of studying organic molecules in meteorites, in search of clues to the origins of life. “I always say that meteorites are our time machines that can take us back to the formation of the solar system. They open up the past to show us what happened,” she enthuses. “Some of these meteorites are 4.6 bilion years old. They’re very old extraterrestrial samples.”
At the same time, she also works on supporting missions to Mars, improving the analysis techniques that will be used on the red planet. “We need to be sure that the methods will work,” she explains. “The way we can perfect them is by studying the deserts on Earth, where there’s almost no life and the oxidative conditions are like those on the surface of Mars.”
It’s inevitable that people ask her if she wouldn’t like to take part in an expedition to Mars, but the answer couldn’t be firmer: “People have a very Hollywoodesque image, they have no idea of the reality. It’s a voyage of no return and it’s bad for everything!” According to her friends, Zita Martins is the most normal person in the world, which is just what she wants to be.
She lives in a Victorian house but one of the factors that influenced her choice was the proximity of a … fishmonger’s. “It’s a very peaceful residential area. I needed that calm because of the busy life I lead. But I loved the idea of having fresh fish nearby.” This has nothing to do with the much talked about Portuguese homesickness, because she’s adamant when she says: “I’m a citizen of the world.” Not even in cooking, something she loves to do, does she fit the typical emigrant portrait. “I have a very international cooking style.”
In the meantime, we’ve left the tearoom and the piano to carry on chatting in the garden, making the most of the autumn sun. There’s a delicateness about her gestures that reminds us of the ballerina of days gone by, but the truth is she now dedicates herself to a different art form. Zita Martins tells us it’s the capacity to use our adversary’s own strength against him. You’d never imagine it, but she’s a black belt in aikido.
by Alda Rocha
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