Catherine Rix

congratulations Adam, it's been a crazy two weeks, but I've loved it

Favourite Thing: I really like doing experiments in the lab. It’s really great when an experiment works well, but even when things go wrong it can give you new ideas about what is happening and new things to try. I also really enjoy having discussions about my work with people I work with. The team I’m part of come from very different backgrounds. We are a mixture of chemists, biologists and engineers so it’s really interesting to get a different view point and can also be really helpful.



Mark Rutherford Upper School and Community College (1995 – 2000) A Levels in Chemistry, Maths and Physics


Imperial College London (2001 – 2005) Chemistry, Cranfield University Bedfordshire (2008-2011) PhD in development of the Life Marker Chip Instrument

Work History:

In between finishing school and starting university I worked in a library for a year to save up some cash. After I graduated I got a job as a technician working for a company who make pregnancy tests. I worked there for three years doing a variety of different jobs including helping to develop new products and trying to solve problems with the products as they happened


I left my job at Unipath to start working at Cranfield University on the LMC project, which bizarrely works a bit like a pregnancy test!

Current Job:

Senior Technical Officer (a bit of everything!) I spend most of my time working on the LMC project but have also been involved in other work – like the CASS-E stratospheric balloon experiment. I’ve been studying for a PhD part time while I’ve been working here and I’m nearly finished.

Me and my work

I’m part of a team who are developing the Life Marker Chip, an instrument designed to look for evidence of past or present life on Mars

This is a model of the LMC instrument, the pen shows you how small its going to be

I work the the Sensing in Extreme Environments group at Cranfield University. We are interested in detecting life in extreme environments both on Earth and beyond. At the moment I’m working on the development of the Life Marker Chip (LMC).

The LMC is an instrument designed to look for evidence of past or present life on Mars and is due to fly to Mars on the 2018 ExoMars mission. The LMC is being developed by a big team of scientists and engineers from all over Europe.

Today Mars is very cold and dry and has very high levels of UV radiation  on the surface so it isn’t an easy place for life to survive. But there is evidence that Mars was once warmer and wetter so its possible that life evolved on Mars a long time ago, but has since become extinct. Finding evidence of life on Mars would be very exciting because if there is life on Mars now, or there ever was life on Mars in the past, it is much more likely that there is life on other planets too. We’re not expecting to find little green men on Mars though, we are looking for very simple microbial life – lifeforms that consist of a single cell and are too small to be seen by eye – you would have to use a microscope.

On earth microbes are everywhere and they can survive in extreme environments including very cold and dry conditions like Antarctic valleys, deep under the ocean by hydrothermal vents where temperatures reach over 200 degrees centigrade and even in nuclear power stations with really high levels of radiation, so it’s possible that microbes could survive on Mars too. So how does the LMC work? The LMC is going to look for certain chemicals in samples of martian rocks and soils. These chemicals are only produced by living things so if we find them it means that there is or was life on Mars. Some of these chemicals can survive for long periods of time (like fossils) so we can also look for evidence of ancient life on Mars that has since died out.

This is what the ExoMars rover will look like. the rover will land on the surface of Mars and will carry a number of experiments including the LMC. The rover has a drill so it can collect samples from below the surface where it is possible that microbes could survive

My Typical Day

Planning my experiments, working in the lab, analysing my data, planning more experiments……repeat!

I usually start my day with a cup of tea at my desk and plan out my labwork for the day before going up to the lab and getting started.

This photo shows me working in the lab doing a type of experiment called an ELISA, which stands for enzyme linked immunosorbant assay. There is a good article on Wikipedia which explains ELISAs if you are interested

This is our spotting robot, we use it to print very small patterns onto glass slides. These patterns are called microarrays and we can use them in our experiments to look for life on Mars

At the moment I’m doing a lot of work with Mars analogue samples – these are rocks and soils collected on Earth from locations that have similarities with Mars i.e. locations that are very cold and dry like the Atacama desert in Chile. I take these samples, crush them up and then test them to see how they interact with the LMC instrument.

Once my experiments are complete I sit down with the results and try to figure out what they mean. If I get stuck there are lots of people in my team who can help me out.

This is a picture from our Monday morning team meeting. You'll probably notice a few coffee cups on the table! Here I am talking about my work to the rest of the team

This is a picture of me working in a cleanroom. When you are building experiments and equipment to fly in space its really important that it is clean which is why we have to work in a cleanroom. Cleanrooms are designed to have no dust or other particles to protect experiments from being contaminated. It's really hot and uncomfortable underneath that suit!

Twice a week we have a team meeting where we all talk about our work to see how much progress we have made. Sometimes I might have to visit another university for a meeting or to use a piece of equipment.

Occasionally I get to travel to conferences to meet other scientists and share my work. My favourite days are when I’m involved in field work and I get to go to exciting places like the Swedish arctic circle.

What I'd do with the money

I’d like to provide funding for teams of school students to be able to build and fly their own experiments on a stratospheric balloon

In 2010 I was part of a team of students who designed, built and flew an experiment on a stratospheric balloon to look for life at the edge of space. More info, photos videos and blogs are available at Take a look at the CASS-E project overview video on Youtube.

This is a picture of the balloon that carried our experiment up to the stratosphere to look for evidence of life in the cold and dry Mars like conditions on the edge of space

I would like to use the I’m a Scientist money to fund teams of school students to design and build their own experiments and then fly them on a small stratospheric balloon platform from the UK.

I think that this would be a great opportunity for teams of school students to find out what its like to be involved in a space mission from start to finish and to see their experiment launched to the edge of space.

This video shows you what the view is like from the stratosphere BEXUS flight.

This is a photo of me and some of the other scientists and engineers from team CASS-E. The photo was taken in the Swedish Arctic circle. It was very cold there - about minus 30 degrees centrigrade at night brrrrr!

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

curious, enthusiastic, organised

Who is your favourite singer or band?


What is the most fun thing you've done?

Watching the Aurora when I was in the arctic circle, that was amazing

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

to stay healthy, to be able to keep working in science, to have more time in the day

What did you want to be after you left school?

When I was little I wanted to be an actress. By the time I left school I knew that I wanted to be a scientist but I hadn’t decided what kind of scientist. To be honest I still haven’t!

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

I was pretty well behaved at school, but I was bad at spelling and had terrible handwriting which my teachers used to complain about

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Flown an experiment to a height of 35 km on a stratospheric balloon inside the arctic circle – it was an amazing feeling watching my experiment launching into the stratosphere.

Tell us a joke.

What’s the difference between Chemistry and cooking? In Chemistry, you should never lick the spoon.