Fashioning the Future With: Morgan Irons
If you've ever wondered what gardening on Mars might look like, then today's interview is for you, because we have astroecologist and soil scientist Morgan Irons on the blog today! Morgan is the founder and Chief Science Officer of Deep Space Ecology, a company that develops ways to create sustainable food environments on places like the moon, Mars — or Europa, one of Jupiter's moons — and even here on Earth. Morgan holds a patent for her ecological systems, and orbiting oranges, that's pretty awesome. Read on to find out about her patented model, which could one day put sustainable space lunches on the plates of Martian colonists and help ensure food security right here on our home planet!
In addition to her entrepreneurship and patented inventions, Morgan is also a Duke grad who is currently working on her PhD in Soil and Crop Sciences at Cornell. She was a Brooke Owens Fellow for the Class of 2017 and a Brookie Alum Mentor for 2018. Morgan currently serves as The Mars Generation's Vice Chair of the Student Space Ambassador Advisory Board. She also does public speaking outreach and is a volunteer in her community. She's worked with organizations like Skype A Scientist and is an amazing STEM and space advocate in general. She's also certified in CPR, AED, first aid, and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills (ASIST) first aid.
We were over Mars's moons to ask Morgan our questions about what inspired her to found Deep Space Ecology, how her patented farming systems work, what her hobbies are, and what advice she has for aspiring astroecologists. Meet Morgan Irons!
When did you first know you were a scientist?
I have always been passionate about science, but I never actually called myself “a scientist” out loud until I graduated with my Bachelor of Science degree from Duke. Even though I observed and asked questions about how nature worked, and I performed experiments to test my hypotheses, I always felt like I could not give myself that title. I realize now that what kept me from calling myself a scientist was a fear that I was not accomplished enough or smart enough, even as other people openly acknowledged me as one.
I realize now that I may have never said it out loud, but I have always been a scientist. I was a scientist as a five-year-old digging up plants to see how their roots spread through the soil, and I was a scientist as a college student, growing plants in Martian soil to understand soil amendment effects on plant growth. Anyone can be a scientist, and no one should feel afraid to admit that.
What first drew you to ecology and environmental science?
My first four years of life were spent living in the desert, surrounded by rock piles, tumbleweeds, and long stretches of open air with only mountains in the distance. At the age of five, my family moved to Virginia, and I experienced my first forests, where I could only see trees in all directions. I was amazed at how different nature could be across a landscape! This moment changed my life because I developed a need to understand how nature functions. This need drew me to ecology and environment science in my academics.
What inspired you to found your company Deep Space Ecology?
It was the lack of people talking about space agriculture, food security, and environmental sustainability at conferences (conferences focused on discussing space exploration) that inspired me to found Deep Space Ecology. Nobody was openly filling the niche of space agriculture in the space industry at that time. I wanted to start the conversation and bring forward an astro-ecology and environmental science viewpoint that had been missing.
Deep Space Ecology was founded based on the research I had been performing at Duke University on the development of closed ecological systems for space habitation. It has grown into a company that works to solve the challenges of food security and human sustainability in the deep spaces of the Earth, Moon, Mars, and beyond.
Can you briefly explain what your patented quasi-closed, agro-ecological systems are and what they do?
Simply put, a quasi-closed, agro-ecological system is the scientific name used to describe the habitation system my company designed to support crews or communities of people living in extreme and changing environments on Earth and in space. The concept of the system comes from my Three Zone Model, which says that for a habitation system to be resilient, stable, and independent of supply chains, it needs to incorporate a habitation zone (where people live and work), an agricultural zone (where crops are grown), and an ecological buffer zone (or wilderness area that provides ecological services and a biodiversity of plants beyond the crops grown in the agricultural system).
Just as we get a lot of our food and different resources from agricultural and ecological systems here on Earth, a quasi-closed, agro-ecological system provides people, such as astronauts, with the same ability and adaptability to get resources from their surroundings that they require. You can see concept art of our systems on my company’s website! You can also read the patent here on the US Patent & Trademark website!
Could you tell us more about how processes developed to benefit deep space environments can also help Earth?
Well, we already know from astrobiology studies performed on the International Space Station that exposing plants to the microgravity environment of Low-Earth Orbit allows researchers to study fundamental plant development and molecular processes as well as study the effects of environmental stressors on plants without the masking effect of Earth’s gravity. Due to these studies, biologists and horticulturalists here on Earth have been able to gain insight into how to improve plant growth in environments on Earth where plants are under stressors, such as drought, low nutrient availability, and temperature fluctuations.
Processes developed to benefit deep space environments will also provide fundamental and applicational knowledge and technology that can be used to guide scientists, agronomists, and farmers in their efforts to conserve and sustain agricultural and ecological systems here on Earth. But even beyond the science, I believe trying to develop an ecological system from scratch on another planet and understanding how difficult and expensive that will be will really put into perspective how devastating it would be to lose the ecological systems and biomes we have here on Earth. A Mars agro-ecological system will be the perfect case study for what we will have to go through to restore an ecosystem lost on Earth.
What do you think agriculture/space gardening will look like on Mars?
Due to the harsh environment of Mars, the agricultural and ecological systems we develop will have to be enclosed in environmentally controlled, engineered systems. Sorry! No large-scale terraforming! However, within these quasi-closed, agro-ecological systems, we will see a field-based agricultural system using the Martian soil/regolith (after it has been treated to take out all the harmful substances) as well as areas of land where a biodiversity of plants are growing wild. We will also probably see some hydroponics, aquaponics, or aeroponics systems integrated with the field-based system. My hope is that we will be able to develop ecological systems that are reminiscent of Earth environments but have evolved and adapted to be uniquely Martian ecological systems. You can see concept art of how my team and I imagine Mars agriculture and space agriculture to look like on my company’s website!
Would you ever consider traveling to Mars as a colonist/astroecology expert?
It would be amazing to visit Mars and work there as an expert for a few years with the agricultural and ecological systems; however, I love Earth too much to leave forever! Plus, my work is not only in space agriculture and food security but is also in Earth agriculture and food security. The goal I have set for my life and career is to make sure individuals, families, and communities have the food and agricultural systems that they need to thrive and live healthy lives no matter where they are on Earth and in our solar system.
What’s your favorite part about being the Vice Chair of the Student Space Ambassador Leadership Advisory Board for The Mars Generation?
My favorite part is helping students realize that their passions and dreams are valid and are realistic. That they do have a support system through The Mars Generation Space Ambassador Leadership Program that they can draw on if they have questions or just want to share their thoughts, ideas, and excitement with students their own ages.
What kind of research are you doing as part of your PhD at Cornell?
My research interests are in understanding how biogeochemical cycles and feedbacks are initially established in regolith and degraded soils from Earth and other planetary bodies. Biogeochemical cycles include the nutrient cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the carbon cycle, the oxygen cycle, etc. My PhD research specifically looks at soil organic matter stabilization (what happens to leaves, dead things, twigs etc. over time after they enter the soil), organo-mineral interactions (how organic matter and soil particles chemically interact), and microbiome dynamics (how fungi and bacteria populations interact biologically and chemically) in soil aggregates (clumps of soil particles) experiencing Earth gravity, microgravity, and different environmental stressors.
Ultimately, I want my research to help with restoring and conserving agricultural and ecological land in areas on Earth that are experiencing desertification and climate change as well as in the extreme environments of space where agricultural systems will be needed for space exploration.
What advice do you have for young people who are interested in astroecology?
If your school does not have astroecology or astrobiology programs, classes, or research, do not be afraid to create your own opportunities to learn and explore the field! That is what I had to do. With the help of academic advisors and mentors, I developed my own research and planned my own experiments through independent research studies. Astro-ecology and astrobiology are relatively new fields in academia, so not all colleges and universities will offer the subject. Don’t let this limit you from exploring the field and developing your own opportunities to learn and grow!
Which scientists (modern day and/or historical) inspire you?
Two scientists that come to mind immediately are Dr. Wangari Maathai (she/her) and Dr. Jane Goodall (she/her). Both scientists were pioneers in their fields and always expressed the importance of including local communities in environmental conservation efforts and understanding the local people’s needs and cultures surrounding the environment. Both scientists inspired me to pursue a career where I can help communities that are experiencing food insecurity due to climate change and environmental degradation (such as desertification) rebuild their agricultural systems to support their local ecology and food cultures. Communities that will eventually develop on the Moon and/or Mars will also need the same kind of support as space beyond Low-Earth Orbit (where the ISS is located) has no food security whatsoever. I hope to change that.
What are some hobbies you enjoy in your free time?
Besides my obvious love for doing anything outdoors (e.g. hiking, camping, gardening, exploring botanic gardens), I have always been very artistic! I am a sketch artist and painter. I especially enjoy sketching people’s portraits because I am fascinated by what a person’s face can tell me about their life experiences. I also read science fiction, dance, volunteer at community events, and practice Laojia Yi Lu (the Old Form of Chen Style Taijiquan/Tai Chi). Additionally, I participate in science communication through social media, public speaking events, and speaking to classrooms through the organization Skype A Scientist!
Do you have any favorite STEM characters in books/movies/other art forms?
The STEM character that has influenced me the most in my life has been Angus “Mac” MacGyver from the 1985-1992 TV series. His ability to solve problems through science, engineering, and physics inspired me to take classes in as many STEM fields as were available to me in middle school, high school, and college. Though I am a PhD student in Soil and Crop Sciences, this explains why I have also taken classes in multivariable calculus, organic and physical chemistry, physics for physicists, medicine, and civil and environmental engineering.
If you were a superhero, what would your go-to wearable tech device be?
A high-tech, biosynthetic suit that could adapt to any extreme environment, whether on Earth or in space. It would be amazing to experience and explore the many different environments that our world and galaxy have to offer!
Where can people find you and Deep Space Ecology online?
Company Website: www.deepspaceecology.com
Cornell Graduate School profile: https://scs.cals.cornell.edu/people/morgan-irons/