University of Washington Astrobiology Program

Fall 2012

Program Highlights From The Director

Prof. Victoria Meadows and Students at 2012 JPL Workshop


This past year has been exciting and productive one for the University of Washington's astrobiology program. On the program side, six of our participating departments and schools (Astronomy, Aeronautics and Astronautics, Earth and Space Sciences, Oceanography, Biology and Microbiology) came together to usher in our new dual-title PhD in a Home Department and Astrobiology. Ty Robinson then became our first student to graduate with a dual-title degree in Astronomy and Astrobiology with a dissertation on how to detect signs of habitability on an Earth-like planet, and David Smith obtained our first dual-title PhD in Biology and Astrobiology for his work on microbial life in the stratosphere.

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An Update From Our Students

UWAB Graduate StudentsAs an inherently interdisciplinary field, astrobiology is a melting pot of many varied scientific endeavors, a gathering point for scientists who are motivated by an insatiable curiosity about the universe. The students in the astrobiology program at the UW represent a microcosm of this global astrobiology community: we represent departments from all corners of campus, but we are united in our passion for answering fundamental questions. Here is but a sampling of our latest undertakings....

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Student Spotlight: Aomawa Shields

Aomawa Shields with Mary Voytek and Carl PilcherOur graduate students have accomplished many exciting things in 2012! One in particular is Aomawa Shields, a fourth-year PhD student in Astronomy who studies the effect of stellar and planetary interactions on planetary ice coverage. This spring, Aomawa wowed us with her success at this year's Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) which took place in Atlanta, Georgia, from April 16-20.

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Mixing and Connecting: The Colloquium Coffee Break

Who can resist cookies?In Fall 2012, UWAB again picked up where we left off with our very popular bi-annual seminar series, which we typically offer each spring and fall quarter. This series offers a wide variety of astrobiology talks for graduate students, as well as the greater campus community and members of the public. This quarter, we hosted presentations from UW Astrobiology students, faculty, postdocs, and visiting scholars such as Dr. Sara Walker (Arizona State University), Prof. Dorian Abbot (University of Chicago), Prof. Boswell Wing (McGill University), Prof. David Brain (UC Boulder), and Dr. Heshan Illangkoon (Blue Marble Institute of Science).

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UWAB Alumni: Where Are They Now?

Clockwise from left: Matt Schrenk, John Armstrong, Sanjoy Som, and Darci Snowden.This year, we tracked down several of our alumni to catch up on what had happened to them since graduation, and to ask them to reminisce about their experiences with the UW Astrobiology Program. We are delighted to present these interviews with Prof. John Armstrong (UWAB '03 - Astronomy), Dr. Darci Snowden (UWAB '10 - ESS), Dr. Sanjoy Som (UWAB '10 - ESS), and Prof. Matt Schrenk (UWAB '05 - Oceanography)

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From JPL to MWO: A 2012 Astrobiology Workshop Report

The 100-inch telescope at MWO.In addition to their coursework and research rotation, another requirement that our students must complete in order to earn their dual-title PhD is to attend three UWAB workshops. These workshops are field-trip based activities geared toward students' scientific and professional development, last 2-3 days, and are offered on an annual basis. They typically involve technical lectures and presentations from faculty members, as well as in-the-field research. This November 28-30, fourteen of our graduate students traveled to Pasadena, CA, to visit NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), as well as the nearby Mount Wilson Observatory (MWO). The workshop was organized by Prof. Victoria Meadows, Nicole Evans, and Tina Swenson.

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UWAB @ A Glance

  • UWAB welcomed 4 new students this year: Russell Deitrick (Astronomy), Evan Firth (Oceanography), Rodrigo Luger (Astronomy), and Matt Tilley (Earth & Space Sciences).
  • In June, UWAB launched a brand-new website. Stay up to date by visiting:

  • Tina Swenson joined UWAB as our new Program Administrator in September. Welcome, Tina!

  • The Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) team was selected to rejoin the NASA Astrobiology Institute, winning funding for five more years.

  • UWAB implemented its dual-title PhD program this past summer, with Tyler Robinson (Astronomy) as its first recipient!

  • This November, UWAB students visited NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Mount Wilson Observatory for an up-close look at the relevance of astronomy and spaceflight to astrobiology.

  • There is still time to make a year-end gift in support of UW Astrobiology! Use the secure, online portal to make a gift today.


Astrobiology in the News



  • This past summer, Tyler Robinson successfully defended his dissertation, and graduated with our first-ever UW PhD in Astronomy and Astrobiology. Ty is now a postdoc in the UWAB Program, working with VPL for one more year.

  • Michele Cash graduated with a PhD in Earth and Space Sciences with a dissertation entitled “Understanding Geomagnetic Storms and Substorms: Plasma Physics Processes Driving Ring Current Enhancements”. She is now working at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center.

  • UWAB alumnus Matt Schrenk was awarded the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's prestigious two-year, $50,000 Sloan Research Fellowship.

  • Professor Victoria Meadows has been named the US Organizer for the Santander Summer School in Astrobiology for 2013-2015.

  • Astronomy student Giada Arney and Oceanography student Jess Colangelo-Lillis were awarded scholarships to participate in the 2012 international summer school in astrobiology, “Origins of the Building Blocks of Life” in Santander, Spain.

  • UWAB students Megan Smith, Eddie Schwieterman, and Elena Amador got to journey to Iceland last summer for the 2012 Nordic-NASA Summer School: “Water, Ice, and the Origin of the Universe”.

  • UWAB & VPL post-doc alumnus, Shawn Domagal-Goldman, recently obtained a civil service position as a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

  • Graduate students Jonathan Bapst (ESS), Ben Vega-Westhoff (Astronomy), and Megan Smith (ESS) received NASA Earth & Space Science Fellowships (NESSF).

  • Graduate student Rika Anderson (Oceanography) won the prize for Best Student Poster at the 14th International Symposium on Microbial Ecology in Copenhagen, Denmark.

  • At AbSciCon, graduate student Aomawa Shields won both first prize in the Student Poster Competition, and the Audience Choice Award for her presentation in Famelab Astrobiology.



    Newsletter editor-in-chief:

    Nicole Evans