Mars: Fertile Ground? | Villanova Magazine | Villanova University
Planet Mars covered in green vines.

Mars: fertile ground?

Faculty and students experiment with growing plants in a “Martian” garden


As he moved around his home inspecting his olive and banana trees, gardening enthusiast Edward Guinan, PhD, ’64 CLAS toyed with an idea. Hmmm. Would it work?

It was 2017, and Dr. Guinan, a professor of Astrophysics and Planetary Science, had recently been tapped by the media to comment on advances in plant habitats aboard the International Space Station. In his remarks, Dr. Guinan shifted the focus from the ISS to the fourth planet from the sun, speculating about the challenges of one day growing food on Mars to support human missions.

And then it occurred to him. Why didn’t he experiment with growing vegetables in Martian-like soil? After all, he taught a class in astrobiology at Villanova. He could try out the experiment at home and, if it had merit, add the active-learning component to his course.

What started as a cool, innovative lab yielded a surprising harvest, garnered international coverage and evolved into a substantive research project that shows no signs of stopping — thanks to the atmosphere at Villanova. With its committed teacher-scholars, enthusiastic students and emphasis on collaboration, the University nurtures this kind of flourishing.


The fact that Dr. Guinan would pursue this line of thought reflects his fascination with Mars. (The opportunity to channel Matt Damon’s character from the blockbuster movie The Martian was a bonus.) While his research focuses primarily on habitability of and life on extrasolar planets, stellar and solar astrophysics, and binary and pulsating stars, Dr. Guinan has been interested in Mars since childhood.

The planet also looms large in NASA’s view of must visit places. The agency hopes to send astronauts to orbit Mars in the early 2030s, while Elon Musk’s SpaceX has 2024 circled as a milestone year in its books. The prospect of crewed, interplanetary expeditions is more science than fiction — and lends urgency to the question of how humans will sustain themselves.

For Dr. Guinan, the question is all the more pressing because of Mars’ potential as a resort — albeit a last resort — for humankind, should a catastrophe on Earth imperil the species. For years, he has been involved in scientific groups dedicated to reducing global risks and preparing for the unimaginable. One plan: the creation of habitable space colonies.

For years, Dr. Guinan has been involved in scientific groups dedicated to reducing global risks and preparing for the unimaginable.

Edward Guinan and Giannina Guzman water plants.
Giannina Guzman checks plants in the greenhouse on Villanova’s campus.

Dr. Guinan and Giannina Guzman '19 CLAS check on the progress of the plants in the Martian garden.


“Because Mars has sunlight and lots of permafrost, it has the capability to be terraformed — that is, made earthlike to support life in specific regions,” says Dr. Guinan, who, with a team of European investigators, found in a theoretical study in 2002 that Mars had lost most of its original atmosphere but retained a significant amount of frozen water.

But could food be grown on the planet? By developing this educational tool for his students, Dr. Guinan hoped to find out.

After developing the experiment and doing a trial run at his home, Dr. Guinan unveiled it to students in fall 2017. Their assignment was straightforward. Working in groups, they were to select and cultivate nutritious plants that might grow in Mars-like conditions.

Wait — Mars-like conditions? In suburban Philadelphia? Dr. Guinan had that criteria covered. First need: a greenhouse. On Mars, plants would have to be grown in heated, pressurized structures. The Department of Biology had graciously allotted space in its campus greenhouse.

Second: Martian “soil,” or regolith. True, no samples of the planet’s iron-rich red dirt have made the journey to Earth yet, but scientists have a good idea of its makeup, and a regolith simulant can be purchased online. Dr. Guinan had stocked up on 100 pounds.

Third: Reduced lighting, as Mars is one-and-a-half times as far from the sun as Earth is. No worries there, either. The students’ patch was in a dimmed section of the greenhouse.

With additions like kale and dandelion from Dr. Guinan, the groups picked their plants. Among them: lettuce, green onions, basil, carrots, peas — the class’s nod to Gregor Mendel — sweet potatoes, mint, garlic and ... hops — maybe to have craft beer at a Mars bar?

Not far into the experiment, students hit a brick wall. Regolith is super clayish and, for tender roots, nearly impenetrable. Part of the lab, then, involved growing plants in soil amended with fillers, including a commercially produced growing medium used in potting mixes and shredded cardboard.

Edward Guinan examines green leaves.

An acclaimed astronomer and avid gardener, Dr. Guinan loves to teach about the study of plants and life in and outside the solar system.



At semester’s end, students nibbled on their harvest and graded the plants’ performances. Outside of lettuce, nothing survived in straight regolith. In the mixed soil, however, almost all the plants got passing marks.

In January, students accompanied Dr. Guinan to the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in National Harbor, Md. They presented their project, “Red Thumbs: Mars Gardens in the University,” to a packed room, highlighting the experiment’s pedagogical benefits and science results.

Dr. Guinan, department colleague Scott Engle, PhD, ’03 CLAS and Astrophysics major Giannina Guzman ’19 CLAS also co-authored a paper that will be submitted to an educational journal in astrobiology and presented at the International Astronomical Union General Assembly in Vienna.

By all accounts, the low-cost, easily replicated science project was a success. But this was not “The End” of Villanova’s veggie tale.

Word of the project spread — the hops angle proved to be especially buzz-worthy — and, a week later, The New York Times dedicated a science feature to it. Soon media outlets across the country and beyond were publicizing the experiment and interviewing Dr. Guinan. From schoolchildren to citizen scientists, people joined in the Martian garden conversation.

Scott Engle experiments with Martian soil.

Scott Engle, PhD, '03 CLAS experiments with amending simulated Martian soil to improve plant yield.

In Pursuit of Science

Villanova’s Martian garden project sparked interest across the globe — and showed how collaborative science can be. In February, for example, a program host on Australia’s ABC National Radio interviewed Dr. Edward Guinan via Skype. Soon after, an Australian researcher sent a collegial email to Dr. Guinan, suggesting possible next steps. One of them: growing the protein-packed Arachis hypogaea. The Villanovans took him up on the idea, and now peanuts are growing in the greenhouse.

Meanwhile, two fifth graders in Brooklyn contacted Dr. Guinan to find out how they could adapt the project. In the following weeks, they emailed photos showing the progress of their beans, cilantro, mesclun and other sprouts. Impressed, Dr. Guinan, in turn, gave a little advice: “Suggest you get a mister and spray the plants.” The young scientists’ project won a ribbon at their school and was selected for a district-wide fair in May.

Close-up of Edward Guinan’s hands covered in soil and earthworms.

Researchers maintain a worm farm, which produces fertilizer for the plants.



At Villanova, Drs. Guinan and Engle were already resolved to continue the Martian garden when Giannina, most recently of the mint-and-garlic group, asked if they knew of a semester-long research project she could take on. Her timing was perfect. For the rest of the academic year, Giannina was the garden’s chief caretaker.

As part of her work on what became a controlled, scientifically rigorous experiment, the junior from San Juan, Puerto Rico, researched the nutrient density, pH thresholds and organic-matter needs of various plants. Soon, radishes, soybeans and barley — to complement the hops — made their garden debut.

Giannina tested the effectiveness of adding acidifier and of varying the proportions of regolith simulant to organic builder. Since one potential source of the latter is worm excrement, Giannina also monitored a newly acquired worm farm, feeding the wriggling inhabitants wilted lettuce from her fridge.

This research project was not Giannina’s first as a Villanova student. To hone her programming skills, she had helped build a database, user interface and dynamic website so that information in a historical, print-only astronomy reference housed at Villanova could be digitally available. This summer, she has an internship with NASA’s Goddard Center for Astrobiology.

“Doing research and writing papers with faculty are amazing experiences,” says Giannina, who plans to pursue a doctorate and, one day, travel in space. “The professors here are so student-oriented. They have no problem designing projects that fit what you want to experiment with and learn about.”

For their parts, Dr. Guinan and Dr. Engle will continue to expand the research and build on its results. Other parties, too, who are interested in challenges related to colonizing Mars are eager to work with them. One big problem is that Martian soil — the real stuff — contains compounds hazardous to humans. A tech company in California has contacted the professors about jointly pursuing funding from NASA to develop a process to remove these toxins, as well as to experiment with plantlike organisms that can break up and aerate dense soil.

Wherever this research leads, participants can’t help feeling jazzed that they are contributing to pioneering and increasingly critical work. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, explorers will be surviving on Mars because they are able to dine on microgreens, carrots and kale. They may even clink frosty mugs in Villanova’s name.

Clumps of red soil.

Thyme Travel from Home

Mojave Martian Simulant is not your garden-variety soil. Made from 20-million-year-old basalt collected from Saddleback Mountain in the western Mojave Desert, the simulant approximates the chemical and mineralogical composition of Mars regolith—the name for the dust and dirt found on the Red Planet’s surface.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory developed the simulant in 2007 to improve laboratory studies ahead of future missions. Because it is now commercially available online at sites such as, scientists, teachers, students, hobbyists and DIY-minded people are conducting their own botany experiments.

See yourself doing it? If so, try growing one or more of the plants that the Villanovans did, or break ground with a different herb or veggie. Happy munching!

The Sky’s Not the Limit

Innovative thinking, faculty-student collaborating and hands-on learning made the Martian garden project as fun and memorable as it was educational. Most alumni who have studied in the department known today as Astrophysics and Planetary Science would say the same about their time as undergraduates. As they soar in their respective fields, they remain grounded in their Villanova experiences.

Sean Carroll, PhD, ’88 CLAS

Even if they’ve never attended his talks, read his books, downloaded his lectures, come across his articles or followed his blog, many folks have probably learned a thing or two about the universe from Sean Carroll, PhD, a research professor of Physics at Caltech.

Dr. Carroll, who earned his doctorate at Harvard, enjoys educating the public about science. He regularly shares his expertise on popular radio and TV programs, and he’s a consultant for the entertainment industry. Productions such as Thor, Bones and The Big Bang Theory have benefited from his input.

Insatiably curious, Dr. Carroll digs everything from literature to fossils (literally; he goes dinosaur hunting). He credits Villanova with immersing him in philosophy and in the no-manual-available nature of research. “It was an important moment in my lif as a young scientist,” Dr. Carroll says. “I realized that I had to make it up as I go along, so to speak.”

Sean Foran, ’08 CLAS

Incoming freshman Sean Foran wanted to study “everything from the subatomic to the galactic.” He also wanted the knowledge to address environmental concerns. A degree in Astrophysics from Villanova was the perfect launch. Along his trajectory since then, Foran has spurred community organizing around water issues as an AmeriCorps volunteer and earned a Master of Social Work at Monmouth University.

Now a policy analyst for a member of the Albuquerque City Council, Foran did much of the research and number crunching to make the city’s visionary $25 million solar project viable. Foran is grateful for his “scientific background and analytical skills, which helped the project get upandrunning.”

Camille Carlisle, ’09 CLAS

Touring Villanova’s campus, Camille Carlisle spied a poster for MIT’s graduate program in Science Writing. She made two decisions. First, she wanted a career in that field. Second, she wanted the journey to begin here.

As the science editor at Sky & Telescope, Carlisle — who did get that master’s at MIT — appreciates how well her studies in English and Astrophysics at Villanova prepared her. From learning, courtesy of Confessions, that “hammering away at God with questions” can deepen faith; to discovering, courtesy of a senior astronomy course, that essay writing reveals “what you do and don’t understand,” Carlisle credits Villanova with “building the whole person.”

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