UWAB 2014 Fall Newsletter

A Word From the Director

This year was certainly a productive one for training the next generation of astrobiologists! Since last Spring we graduated Aomawa Shields and Amit Misra with Dual-Title PhDs in Astronomy and Astrobiology, Eva Stueeken and Tom Tobin with Dual-Title PhDs in Earth and Space Sciences and Astrobiology and Jeff Bowman with a Dual-Title PhD in Astrobiology and Oceanography. Several of our graduates left us for institutions such as Columbia University (Jeff), Harvard (Aomawa) and Caltech (Kyle Costa). Eva and Rika both won NASA Astrobiology Institute Postdoctoral Fellowships and now split their research time between UW and other institutions, so we still see them often! In the “new faces” department, we welcomed Prof. Fang-Zhen Teng (ESS) to the Astrobiology Faculty, and applauded as Dr. Rory Barnes was promoted to Prof. Rory Barnes, also joining the UWAB Faculty. We also welcomed six new students to the Astrobiology Program:  Aaron Brewer, Chloe Hart, Michael Kipp and Steven Sholes from ESS, Max Showalter fromOceanography, and Jacob Lustig-Yaeger from Astronomy.  

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An Update From Our Students

2014 has been an exciting year for astrobiology. The number of known exoplanets has climbed to well over 1000. One of these planets, Kepler-186f, is similar in size to Earth and orbits in its star’s habitable zone. Closer to home, Curiosity continues to rove across the Martian surface making amazing discoveries, and the Rosetta/Philae mission gave us up-close photos from the surface of a comet for the first time. At UW, astrobiology students got the chance to study the ocean aboard the Thomas G. Thompson research vessel on this year’s astrobiology workshop. UW astrobiology students are advancing our knowledge of Earth and its biosphere, worlds across our solar system, and distant exoplanets. Here are some of the projects UW astrobiology students are tackling.

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The 2014 Annual Astrobiology Workshop

A significant focus of the 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. Jody Deming

UWAB faculty member Jody Deming has made a living studying life where one might least expect to find it. As the Walters Endowed Professor in the School of Oceanography, Deming studies the limits of microbial life and particularly cold adaptation in marine microorganisms.

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Where in the World Are Our Astrobiologists?

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 studied astrobiology in Spain, Belgium and Arizona.

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News From Our Alumni

Our list of alumni continues to grow as seven more graduates join the ranks. As of Fall 2014, we are proud to have trained 34 astrobiologists! We checked in with some of our alumni recently to hear what they’ve been up to

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UWAB @ A Glance

  • UWAB welcomed three new students into the program: Jacob Lustig-Yaeger (Astronomy), Michael Kipp (ESS),and Max Showalter (Oceanography). The following affiliate students have formally joined the program to each pursue a Dual-Title PhD in Earth & Space Sciences and Astrobiology: Aaron Brewer, Chloe Hart and Steven Sholes. Paige Northway (Earth & Space Sciences) has recently joined the program as an affiliate student.
  • Prof. Fang-Zhen Teng (Earth & Space Sciences) has joined the Astrobiology Program a new faculty member. Feng-Zhen’s work focuses on using isotopes to understand the history of the early Earth and the moon. Dr. Rory Barnes was also promoted to Prof. Rory Barnes and joins us as new Astrobiology Faculty as well!
  • The Astrobiology Colloquium this fall has, once again, been a great success! If you missed any of our talks, many of them were recorded and are 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!

Science Highlights

  • UWAB graduate student Rodrigo Luger and Prof. Rory Barnes had a paper accepted to Astrobiology on how early extreme water loss may occur on terrestrial planets that form in the habitable zone around young M Dwarf stars. This may eventually produce “Mirage Earths,” dessicated, uninhabitable HZ planets that have O2-rich atmospheres! You can read the abstract here. There’s been quite a lot of press on this, too
  • Recent UWAB graduate Dr. Eva Stueeken, Prof. Roger Buick and collaborators have a paper in press entitled “Nitrogen isotope evidence for alkaline lakes on late Archean continents.” This work on lakes on later Archean continents implies that the Archean ocean wasn’t as alkaline as first thought, contrary to the “early Soda Ocean” hypothesis, and some origin of life models.
  • The work of Prof. Sharon Doty’s group on tailoring internal microbiota to help plants better detoxify organic pollutants was highlighted in Science News.
  • VPL PostDoc, Dr. Peter Driscoll, has a new paper published in Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors that looks at the divergent histories of Earth and our sister planet, Venus: “On the thermal and magnetic histories of Earth and Venus: Influences of melting, radioactivity, and conductivity.”
  • NAI NPP Postdoc Dr. Jon Toner published several papers on his work with super-cooled brines. One of them, an Icarus paper on “The formation of super-cooled brines, viscous liquids and low temperature glasses on Mars,” explores the low temperature behavior of perchlorate brines under Martian analog conditions, and shows that they form glasses that may help to preserve, rather than destroy life.
  • UWAB graduate student Amit Misra and Prof. Victoria Meadows, had a paper accepted in Astrophysical Journal Letters on “Discriminating Between Cloudy, Hazy and Clearsky Exoplanets Using Refraction” which outlines a new observational technique to quickly determine which exoplanets will be the most valuable ones to take spectra of.
  • UWAB graduate student Megan Smith, with Prof. David Catling and collaborators published a paper in Icarus on “the formation of sulfate, nitrate and perchlorate salts in the Martian atmosphere.” This work provided a theoretical framework to try to understand the formation of the abundance perchlorate salts found by the Phoenix Lander mission to Mars.
  • UWAB Alumni Dr. Shawn Goldman, Dr. Mark Claire and Dr. Ty Robinson, along with Prof. Victoria Meadows and collaborators had a paper published in Astrophysical Journal Letters on “Abiotic Ozone and Oxygen in Atmospheres Similar prebiotic Earth,” on how it might be possible to build up ozone in early Earth-type atmospheres without the present of life.
  • UWAB graduate student Amit Misra, Prof. Meadows, and UWAB Alumnus Dr. Mark Claire published a paper in Astrobiology on “Using dimers to measure biosignatures and atmospheric pressure for terrestrial exoplanets.” This paper explores using dimers, loosely bonded pairs of molecules in planetary atmospheres, to learn more about the planetary environmental conditions.
  • UWAB Alumnus Dr. Ty Robinson, Prof. Victoria Meadows, UWAB graduate student Eddie Schwietermann and colleagues published a paper in collaboration with the LCROSS mission team that used LCROSS observations of the Earth to confirm the detectability of glint from the Earth’s oceans when the Earth is viewed as a distant pale blue dot: “Detection of Ocean Glint  and Ozone Absorption using LCROSS Earth Observations.”
  • Prof. Emeritus Woody Sullivan and colleague published a paper in Anthropocene on “Sustainability and the astrobiological perspective: Framing human futures in a planetary context.” This paper uses astrobiology’s approach to habitability and planetary evolution to inform researchers in the sustainability science community. 


  • Congratulations to our recent graduates! Tom Tobin and Eva Stueeken both received their Dual-Title PhD in Earth & Space Sciences and Astrobiology. Aomawa Shields received her Dual-Title PhD in Astronomy and Astrobiology, while Jeff Bowman received his Dual-Title PhD in Oceanography and Astrobiology.
  • Congratulations to Giada Arney who has been select to receive a NASA Astrobiology Early Career Collaboration Award. She will be using these funds to collaborate with Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman at Goddard Space Flight Center. 
  • Congratulations to UWAB graduated student Dr. Eva Stueeken and UWAB postdoc Dr. Benjamin Charnay for winning NASA Astrobiology Postdoctoral Fellowships. Eva will be splitting her research time between UW and UC-Riverside. Benjamin will continue to work with the NAI Virtual Planetary Lab at the University of Washington.
  • Graduate student Matt Tilley (Earth & Space Sciences) won a scholarship to the 2014 International Summer School in Astrobiology in Santander, Spain.
  • Congratulations to recent UWAB graduate Dr. Aomawa Shields for winning a NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship at UCLA. 
  • UWAB graduate Dr. Jeff Bowman received a Postdoc position at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University
  • Astrobiology faculty member Prof. Fang-Zhen Teng (Earth & Space Sciences) won the MSA Award from the Mineralological Society of America for his published research in the field of minerology. In addition to the award, Fang-Zhen becomes a Life Fellow of the Society.

Newsletter Editor-In-Chief:

Tina Swenson
Program Administrator