University of Washington Astrobiology Program

Fall 2013

A Word From The Director

A word from the Director, Victoria Meadows.

We've had a busy and productive year with a focus on maintaining our excellence while expanding our program. The School of Environmental and Forest Sciences and the Department of Atmospheric Sciences joined our existing six participating departments and schools in offering the Dual-Title PhD in Astrobiology. We also welcomed four new faculty members, six new students and three affiliate students into the program. Our graduates included Marcela Ewert-Sarmiento and Rika Anderson who earned Dual-Title PhDs in Oceanography and Astrobiology, and Kyle Costa (PhD Microbiology) earned a Graduate Certificate in Astrobiology. We also introduced a new course on Professional Development for Astrobiologists into our Dual-Title PhD curriculum, to better prepare our graduates for their future careers.

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An Update From Our Students

UWAB graduate students visiting Montana.This year has been an exciting one for astrobiology! As Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) slowly rolls across the surface of the red planet, there is increasing evidence that Mars may have once been habitable. If we turn our attention farther from Earth, NASA's Kepler Space Telescope has left scientists with a treasure-trove worth of data to sift through. UW Astrobiology graduate students are working on scientific research that will help us better interpret data and understand the environmental conditions on other planets. Here is a sampling of questions our graduate students are trying to answer:

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The 2013 Annual Astrobiology Workshop

A trip to Iceland.

A significant focus of UW Astrobiology's graduate program is to provide our students with opportunities for hands-on interdisciplinary research experiences, and in-the-field learning. Our annual workshops are multi-day educational field trips, and are a centerpiece of the interdisciplinary training in our Program.

We have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from our students and alumni about this component of our curriculum, and many of you have told us that these experiences have been some of the most memorable and valuable aspects of your time in the UWAB program. However, our limited state funding for these workshops means that not all students who are interested in participating in a given field trip are able to do so. This year, we used donations to our Friends of Astrobiology Fund to help support attendance at the workshop. Even a small donation can make a big difference to an individual student, and we are very thankful for your support!

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Faculty Spotlight: Prof. Drew Gorman-Lewis

Drew Gorman-Lewis, Assistant Professor of Earth & Space SciencesOver the past academic year, the UW Astrobiology program has continued to grow, now boasting nearly 30 faculty members who span multiple affiliated departments, and work on a wide variety of research topics. Drew Gorman-Lewis, Assistant Professor of Earth & Space Sciences, is one of four new faculty members we have welcomed into the program in the past year.

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Did Viruses Play a Role in the Origin of Life?

The view from Alvin, a submersible research vessel.One of the hot research topics here in the UW Astrobiology program is “Life in Extreme Environments.” By studying the tricks that life uses to survive in harsh habitats on Earth, astrobiologists can learn what conditions are truly essential for life to exist, and can better identify potentially habitable environments in the search for life beyond Earth. These hardy organisms, called extremophiles, may thrive despite limited access to energy and nutrient sources, and can often tolerate extremes in temperature, pressure, and pH that would be deadly to most other life on Earth.

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Where in the World Are Our Astrobiologists?

A trip to Iceland.In addition to our Annual Astrobiology Workshop, the UWAB Program encourages, supports, and in many cases organizes educational experiences for astrobiology students in our program and around the world. This year, our students won external funding to study astrobiology in Spain, Australia and Iceland.

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News From Our Alumni

A figure from Ken Williford's recent paper, showing carbon isotope measurements of microfossils.Since the founding of UW Astrobiology in 1998, our graduate program has steadily grown. As of Fall 2013, we are proud to have trained nearly 30 astrobiologists! We checked in with some of our alumni recently to hear about what they've been up to.

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UWAB @ A Glance

  • UWAB welcomed six new students into the program this year: Chantz Thomas (Chemistry), Paul Kintner (Earth & Space Sciences), Wolf Clifton (Museology), Matthew Koehler (Earth & Space Sciences), Joshua Krissansen-Totton (Earth & Space Sciences), and Brett Morris (Astronomy). Three other students, Jaclyn Saunders (Oceanography), Diana Windemuth (Astronomy) and Chloe Hart (ESS) became affiliates.
  • Prof. Jim Hermanson (Aeronautics & Astronautics) and Prof. Drew Gorman-Lewis (Earth & Space Sciences) have joined the Astrobiology program as new faculty members. Jim's research interests include spaceflight, orbital mechanics, and thermal dynamics as related to planetary environments. Drew's work focuses on how microbes influence and adapt to their environment.

  • The School of Environmental and Forest Sciences and the Department of Atmospheric Sciences were added as participating departments for the Astrobiology Dual-Title PhD.

  • The Astrobiology Colloquium this fall has been a smashing success! If you missed any of our talks, many of them are recorded and available for viewing on the NAI website.

  • There is still time to make a year-end gift in support of UW Astrobiology! Your contributions support many aspects of the UWAB program, including workshops, graduate student scholarships, and public events. Use the secure, online portal to make a gift today!


Astrobiology in the News

  • Graduate student Aomawa Shields (Astronomy) recently published a paper on the effect of planetary ice-coverage on climate for stars of different spectral type. Her collaborators included Prof. Cecilia Bitz (Atmos. Sci), Prof. Victoria Meadows (Astronomy), and alumnus Ty Robinson (Astronomy).

  • VPL postdoc, Colin Goldblatt and UWAB alumnus Ty Robinson (Astronomy) have published a paper in Nature Geoscience showing that it may be easier than previously thought for a planet to enter a “runaway greenhouse” state.

  • UWAB collaborators, Roy Black and Sarah Keller (Chemistry) have recently published a paper in PNAS suggesting that the joining of RNA and fatty acids to form the first cells may have been assisted by a natural affinity between these components.

  • Work by Prof. Roger Buick (Earth & Space Sciences) and alumnus Jelte Harnmeijer indicates that meteorites may have delivered soluble, biologically-available phosphorus to the Early Earth, just in time for the development of life.

  • UWAB faculty member Eric Agol (Astronomy) has discovered a potentially habitable planet. Kepler 62f is a 1.4 Earth radii, likely terrestrial, planet in the habitable zone of a K2V star.

  • This past summer, Dr. Rory Barnes (Astronomy), along with a team of international collaborators, discovered three new 'super-Earth' planets in the habitable zone of a nearby red dwarf star.



  • Congratulations to our recent graduates! Marcela Ewert-Sarmiento and Rika Anderson both received their Dual-Title PhD in Oceanography and Astrobiology this past year, while Kyle Costa received his PhD in Microbiology and a Graduate Certificate in Astrobiology.

  • Congratulations to graduate students Anna Simpson (Env. & Forest Sciences), Jonathan Bapst (Earth & Space Sciences), and Russel Deitrick (Astronomy) who each won a position at the Nordic School of Astrobiology workshop in Hawaii.

  • Astrobiology faculty member Cecilia Bitz (Atmos. Sci) won a 2013 Ascent Award from the American Geophysical Union. This new award "aims to reward exceptional mid-career (academic, government, and private sector) scientists in the fields of the atmospheric and climate sciences."

  • Director Victoria Meadows (Astronomy) and former VPL postdoc Shawn Domagal-Goldman were competitively selected to join NASA's Exoplanet Science and Technology Definition Teams. These teams are working on development of technical concepts and science for an Internal Coronograph and an External Occulter for exoplanet detection and characterization.

  • Graduate students Eddie Schwieterman (Astronomy) and Jonathan Bapst (Earth & Space Sciences) won scholarships to the 2013 International Summer School in Astrobiology in Santander, Spain.

  • Congratulations to UWAB graduating student Dr. Rika Anderson and Dr. Jon Toner for winning NASA Astrobiology Postdoctoral Fellowships. Rika will be working with the U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign NAI Lead Team, and Jon will be working with Prof. Dave Catling here at UWAB. Farewell Rika and welcome Jon!




    Newsletter Editor-In-Chief:

    Nicole Evans
    Program Assistant