University of Washington Astrobiology Program

Fall 2011

UW Astrobiology Director's Message


The thrilling and successful launch of the Mars Science Laboratory, NASA's most advanced and technologically-challenging mission yet, serves as an inspiring reminder of the central role that astrobiology plays at the frontiers of human exploration in space, and here on our home planet.

Looking upward and outward, MSL's planned robotic survey of the Red Planet has as its overall goal a search for signs of past or even present environments for life. And the NASA Kepler space telescope has discovered over 1200 planets outside of our solar system that might be able to support life, but it is still pushing for its ultimate prize -- the discovery of an Earth-sized planet in an Earth-sized orbit. Meanwhile, here on Earth, wherever the environment gets extreme and the going gets tough, that's where you'll find astrobiologists: collecting ice and rock samples in the Arctic and Antarctic; sampling microbes and viruses in the boiling, mineral-rich waters spewing from ocean floor hydrothermal vents; capturing air from the stratosphere to search for microbial habitation; and probing the chemistry and resilience of life in the driest place on Earth, Chile's high-altitude Atacama desert.

This is a new era of human exploration supported by a new era in science -- interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity allows teams of researchers to tackle problems and push frontiers that cannot be fully explored by a single researcher or a single discipline. Astrobiology is, by nature, a strongly interdisciplinary science, and the University of Washington's Astrobiology Program is a pioneer in training the next generation of astrobiologists and interdisciplinary explorers.

This is why one of the most exciting developments for UW Astrobiology this year will focus on the graduate education component of our program. Currently, our graduate students earn a graduate Certificate in Astrobiology in addition to the PhD they earn in their home department. This certificate requires that students complete an additional 15-20 credits of advanced training in cross-disciplinary communication and research. However, in the coming year, we will working in conjunction with our affiliated departments to develop and implement a new dual-title PhD program that will allow students to earn a degree in their home department and Astrobiology (e.g., "Doctor of Philosophy in Earth & Space Science and Astrobiology). Our program will continue to offer a graduate Certificate in Astrobiology, but the new dual-title degree will better represent the exceptional achievements and dedication to the field of astrobiology that our students continually demonstrate.

This new addition to our graduate education program, however, is just an example of the ongoing work -- be it teaching, field work, interdisciplinary research and collaboration, or outreach -- that makes UW-Astrobiology the premier program of its kind. There is, after all, a good reason why the astrobiologists at the University of Washington routinely receive attention and acknowledgement for their achievements (only some of which are highlighted below). But we are a restless bunch and we are never ever "done." So, over the coming months and years, our program and the close-knit community of faculty, students, and staff that make up UW Astrobiology will continue to evolve, to explore, and to push the limits of humanity's most powerful mode of exploration yet: Interdisciplinary Science.

Best wishes for the holiday season and a wonderful new year!

Victoria Meadows

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Photo: An Atlas V rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center carrying with it Curiosity Rover and the Mars Science Laboratory, 26 November 2011. Courtesy of NASA

Recent Achievements & Research Highlights within the UWAB Community

Graduate Student Jeff Bowman (Oceanography) recently returned from an NSF-funded research trip to Antarctica, where he and his teammate, Shelly Carpenter (Lab Manager, Deming Ecosystem), collected ice cores and “frost flowers” as part of an ongoing effort to understand that nature of microbial life in extremely cold temperatures.

Graduate Student Aomawa Shields (Astronomy) was accepted into the Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees of Success (MS-PHDS) program, which includes professional development, mentoring, and financial aid opportunities for students in the field of Earth System Science.

Professor Jody Deming (Oceanography) has been awarded NSF funding to join an international Arctic expedition in (March 2012) to northeast Greenland, where the team will sample and study newly forming winter sea ice, the “frost flowers” that form on the surface of this ice, and the microbes that inhabit these very cold, unique ice structures.


UW Astrobiology Research Scientist Rory Barnes recently received a four-year NSF award to support his study "The Dynamical Origin of Planetary System Architecture."

A number of UW Astrobiology faculty members and collaborators contributed to the Mars Science Lab Mission, which included a successful launch of the Curiosity Rover in late November:

> Professor Roger Buick (Earth & Space Science) was a member of the MSL Biosignatures Working Group along with Dr. David Des Marais of NASA Ames and co-investigator with the UW-housed Virtual Planetary Lab or “VPL."

> Similarly, VPL team member Dr. Pamela Conrad of Goddard Space Flight Center is currently serving as the Deputy Principal Investigator for the Curiosity Rover's “Sample Analysis at Mars” experiment.

Graduate Students Aomawa Shields (Astronomy) and David Smith (Biology) both won fellowships with the Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium. Aomawa’s award supported an external research rotation at JPL in Pasadena, CA in the summer of 2011. David was awarded a grant that he will use to support his research in 2012.

Professor Woody Sullivan (Astronomy) received the Leroy Doggett Prize for lifetime achievement by the Historical Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society for his work in the areas of the development of early radio astronomy, our ideas about extraterrestrial life, and the 18th-century astronomer William Herschel.

The work of UW Astrobiology alum Nathan Kaib (Astronomy), Professor Tom Quinn (Astronomy), and Rok Roskar (University of Zurich, Inst. for Theoretical Physics) was featured in the cover story -- Earth’s Wild Ride: Our Voyage Through the Milky Way -- in the December 3rd issue of New Scientist.


Graduate Students Osa Igbinosun (Earth & Space Science) and Aomawa Shields (Astronomy) both won NSF Graduate Research Fellowships this year in support of their astrobiology research.

Graduate Student Amit Misra (Astronomy) recently visited Chief Kanim Middle School in Fall City, WA to give an astrobiology-themed presentation and introduce the students to advances in online research tools, solar system modeling, and other informational resources.

Graduate Student David Smith (Biology) received a 2011 National Geographic Society Waitt Grant.

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