Kimberley Warren-Rhodes

Kimberly Warren-Rhodes

Research Scientist

Disciplines: Astrobiology, Ecosystem Science, NanoClimate Modeling

Degree/Major: Environmental Engineering and Science, Ph.D., Stanford University; Astrophysics and Chinese, University of Texas at Austin

Curriculum vitae: CV2017KWarren-Rhodes.pdf

Field astrobiology, whether on our own world or faraway planets, is not for the faint-hearted, and Kimberley is a fearless and natural born explorer. As an ecologist at NASA and the SETI Institute, she has pioneered the study of some of the harshest and most remote deserts on Earth—from the mountainous red dunes in Namibia to the fabled deserts of the ancient Silk Road. Fluent in Chinese, and in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, PI Kimberley led the first astrobiology surveys of the legendary Taklimakan and high altitude deserts, and salt lakes of western China and the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. In the driest desert in the world—the Atacama Desert of Chile—Kimberley teamed with Carnegie Mellon Institute of Robotics for several generations of ‘Life in the Atacama’ projects to train field robotic rovers (and engineers!) to sleuth for cryptic bacterial oases.  As one of the first scientists to apply traditional landscape ecology to the study of extreme environments and their microbial inhabitants, her ground-breaking work established the limit for photosynthetic life on this planet. She dreams of exploring the deserts of Mars for similar signatures of extant or extinct bacterial life.

Relentlessly inquisitive, Kimberley has a deep and abiding scientific fascination with the puzzle of life: in other words, how microbial life survives and adapts to the harshest conditions our planet has to offer—whether it is the scorchingly high temperatures in Death Valley, the DNA-shredding ultraviolet radiation in the El Tatio, Chile, high-altitude hot springs, or the miniscule water levels in the Atacama Desert. Since her first days as a post-doctorate at NASA, she has advocated for the utility of applying traditional ecological principles and field sampling strategies to the study of microbes in extreme environments and robotic exploration. Her ultimate goal is to leverage the deep ecological knowledge and hone logistical field survey methods garnered from the long-term study of microbial communities—how they structure themselves, adapt and engineer their own environments and habitats, i.e., ‘coevolution’ (Cabrol, 2018)—to the ecological mapping and search for biosignatures on Mars and other planets.

With her Ph.D. from Stanford University (NSF Women in Engineering) in Environmental Engineering and Science, Kimberley also specializes in the monitoring and modeling of extreme environments through cutting-edge nanoclimate systems that record the ‘everyday’ extremes experienced by the organisms that eek out a living in the soils, rocks, salt flats, hot springs and playas of these extreme deserts. Her multidisciplinary background and widespread experience help her to catalyze the integration of disparate scientific disciplines during large-scale field campaigns and operations. She especially enjoys working with multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural teams—seeing her role as ecologist as one of distilling and harmonizing the individual biological, geological, chemical and physical sciences into the larger cohesive ecological picture of life in its environment.

Kimberley attributes her love of the science of desert and affinity for languages and working on multi-cultural teams to her experiences as a child growing up in cultures and landscapes as diverse as Kuwait, Texas and Australia.  In retrospect, gazing up at the stars on a clear, cold night and hiking on a hot summer day amidst the majestic Saguros in the Great Arizona Desert, climbing Uluru (Ayers Rock) in the Australian outback, and riding a camel in the Kuwaiti Desert were each stepping-stones on her pathway to her career as a planetary desert ecologist and astrobiologist.

Kimberley has received multiple awards for science and engineering from the National Science Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, NASA (ASTEP), UC Berkeley and Stanford University, and National Research Council, including as science or field ecology PI and Co-I on Exploring Extremophiles in the Taklimakan Desert, Life in the Atacama (2000-2003 & 2003-2006), Subsurface Life in the Atacama (2011-2015), and SETI Institute NASA Astrobiology Changing Planetary Environments and Fingerprints of Life (2105-present) projects. Her broader research interests center on ecology and ecosystem services at multiple scales in terrestrial, marine and extraterrestrial environments. Kimberley has lectured at Stanford and taught environmental science as a visiting or assistant professor at the University of San Francisco, the University of Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong Science and Technology, along with advising/reviewing thesis for graduate and undergraduate students. She is on the Editorial Boards of Microbial Ecology and Frontiers in Microbiology and a reviewer for Astrobiology, Environmental Conservation, JGR, Ecological Economics, Icarus, FEMS Microbiology, NSF Panels and many other journals.


Physical Ecology of Hypolithic Communities in the Central Namib Desert: the Role of Fog, Rain, Rock Habitat and Light. Kimberley Warren-RhodesChristopher McKayLinda BoyleMichael Wing,Don CowanFrancesca StomeoStephen PointingKudzai Farai KasekeFrank EckardtJoh HenschelAri AnisfeldMary SeelyKevin Rhodes. Journal of Geophysical Research  09/2013; DOI:10.1002/jgrg.20117

Hypolithic microbial communities: between a rock and a hard place. Yuki ChanDonnabella C LacapMaggie C Y LauKong Ying HaKimberley A Warren-RhodesCharles S CockellDonald A CowanChristopher P McKayStephen B Pointing. Environmental Microbiology (06/2012; 14(9):2272-82. DOI:10.1111/j.1462-2920.2012.02821.

Ancient Origins determine global biogeography of hot and cold desert cyanobacteria. Justin BahlMaggie C Y LauGavin J D SmithDhanasekaran VijaykrishnaS Craig CaryDonnabella C LacapCharles K LeeR Thane PapkeKimberley A Warren-RhodesFiona K Y WongChristopher P McKayStephen B PointingNature Communications (Impact Factor: 10.02). 01/2011; 2:163. DOI:10.1038/ncomms1167

Cyanobacterial ecology across environmental gradients and spatial sales in China's hot and cold deserts. Kimberley A Warren-RhodesKevin L RhodesLinda Ng BoyleStephen B PointingYong ChenShuangjiang LiuPeijin ZhuoChristopher P McKay. FEMS Microbiology Ecology (Impact Factor: 3.56). 10/2007; 61(3):470-82. DOI:10.1111/j.1574-6941.2007.00351.

Nanoclimate environment of cyanobacterial communities in China's hot and cold hyperarid deserts. Kimberley A. Warren-RhodesKevin L. RhodesShuangjiang LiuPeijin Zhou,Christopher P. McKay. Journal of Geophysical Research (Biogeosciences) 03/2007; 112(G1). DOI:10.1029/2006JG000260.

Searching for microbial life remotely: Satellite-to-rover habitat mapping in the Atacama Desert, Chile. K. Warren-RhodesS. WeinsteinJ. DohmJ. PiatekE. MinkleyA. Hock,Charles CockellD. PaneL A ErnstG. FisherS. EmaniA S WaggonerN. A. CabrolD. S. WettergreenD. ApostolopoulosP. CoppinE. GrinC. Diaz,J. MoerschG. G. OrilT. SmithK. StubbsG ThomasM WagnerM. Wyatt

Journal of Geophysical Research (Impact Factor: 3.17). 01/2007; DOI:10.1029/2006JG000283.

Hypolithic cyanobacteria, dry limit of photosynthesis, and microbial ecology in the hyperarid Atacama Desert.Kimberley A Warren-RhodesKevin L RhodesStephen B PointingStephanie A EwingDonnabella C LacapBenito Gómez-SilvaRonald AmundsonE Imre FriedmannChristopher P McKay.

Microbial Ecology 11/2006; 52(3):389-98. DOI:10.1007/s00248-006-9055-7

Technical Description of Work

Astrobiology, ecology, especially modeling of the ecology of microbial life in extreme environments. Our group seeks to understand and predict the biogeochemical patterns/spatial and functional ecology of microbial communities across extreme environmental gradients in hyperarid deserts, hypersaline habitats and high-altitude hot springs in order to hone the search for biosignatures on other worlds, especially Mars. Develop robotic ecological science methods and rigorous field tests of Mars rover capabilities for detecting microbial life autonomously. Field scientist role in large-scale remote and in-situ scientific data campaigns and analysis and publication of  multidisciplinary team data. Nanoclimate monitoring and modeling of extreme environments.