UWAB 2015 Fall Newsletter

UW Astrobiology Program

Fall 2015

A Word From the Director

Our last year was a productive and exciting one! We graduated five students: Regina Carns (Earth & Space Sciences and Astrobiology), Wolf Clifton (Museology and Astrobiology Certificate), Kelly Hillbun (Earth & Space Sciences and Astrobiology), Amit Misra (Astronomy and AstrobiGrand Prismaticology), and Meg Smith (Earth and Space Sciences and Astrobiology Certificate). Several of our recent former graduates have received prestigious appointments in the last year: Aomawa Shields (Astronomy & Astrobiology) won dual postdoc appointments at Harvard and UCLA, and was named a 2015 TED Fellow. Mark Claire, former UWAB graduate student in astronomy and VPL postdoc, received a multi-million dollar European Research Council grant to study the evolution of Earth’s atmosphere. Mark thanks the UW Astrobiology Program for giving him “field cred” and his start on isotope geochemistry during his UWAB research rotation! Tyler Robinson (Astronomy & Astrobiology) was awarded a NASA Sagan Fellowship and will work at the University of California at Santa Cruz developing state-of-the-art cloud models for exoplanets.  David Smith (Earth and Space Sciences), now at NASA Ames, led the E-MIST balloon mission studying the survival of microbes in the stratosphere. 

Read More >

Exciting Upcoming Local Events

Mark your calendars! Two noteworthy astrobiology-related events are happening within the next month!

The NASA Astrobiology Debates Western Championship is coming to our backyard on October 17 and 18. The event will be hosted at the University of Washington thanks to the organization of UWAB Professor John Baross. The topic of the debate is "Resolved: An overriding ethical obligation to protect and preserve extraterrestrial microbial life and ecosystems should be incorporated into international law." Click here for more information about this fun event!

UWAB Emeritus Professor Woody Sullivan has been instrumental in organizing "Origins: Life and the Universe", an audiovisual concert about space and life in the universe being held at Benaroya Hall on Saturday November 7 2015at 2pm. Click "Read More" below for more information and a ticket discount code for readers of this newsletter.

Read More >

An Update From Our Students

UWAB students at Grand Prismatic Hot Spring2015 marked the 25th anniversary of the Voyager "Pale Blue Dot" image made famous by Carl Sagan. Fittingly, many exciting events related to astrobiology happened this year. On Mars, NASA recently announced the discovery of concentrated salty water in recurring slope lineae (seasonal flows on sloped surfaces). Farther away, New Horizons whizzed by Pluto in July and took the first ever close-up photos of this distant dwarf planet. Pluto may be similar in composition to the cometary material that supplied some of Earth’s water inventory, and New Horizons has shown us that this tiny world is truly amazing and surprising. Even farther out, the number of known exoplanets is now at 1600, while the number of planetary candidates numbers at 3700! To think that just twenty-odd years ago, we only knew of the planets in our solar system..! Our astrobiology workshop this year was at Yellowstone National Park, and the students who attended had an amazing time analyzing the extreme microbes that inhabit the colorful hydrothermal pools. UW astrobiology students are at the forefront of advancing our knowledge of Earth and its biosphere, worlds across our solar system, and distant exoplanets.  Here are some of the exciting projects we are tackling right now.

Read More >

The 2015 Annual Astrobiology Workshop

A significant focus of the UW Astrobiology’s graduate program is to provide our Students on a boardwalk at Yellowstonestudents 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!

Read More >

Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Aomawa Shields

Aomawa on stageUWAB former grad student Dr. Aomawa Shields (Astronomy & Astrobiology, 2014) is now splitting her time at UCLA and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Aomawa’s research involves the habitability of icy worlds. This year, she was named a TED fellow, and as a classically trained actor, she users her communication skills to teach science to diverse audiences in fun and innovative ways.

Read More >

Alumni Spotlight: Dr. David Smith

David SmithUWAB former grad student Dr. David Smith (Biology & Astrobiology, 2012) studied microbes floating in Earth’s stratosphere as a graduate student at UW. Today, he is a Project Scientist at the Space Biosciences Research Division at NASA Ames Research Center. His current research involves sending weather balloons aloft to study how microbial payloads survive near the edge of space.

Read More >

Where in the World Are Our Astrobiologists?

Besides our Annual Astrobiology Workshop, the UWAB Program Greenlandencourages, supports, and in many cases organizes educational experiences for astrobiology students in our program and around the world. This year, we went to many places around the globe including Iceland, Australia,Greenland, and Sweden! Read on to discover the places we visited…

Read More >

2.5 Months in the Life of a Future Large Space Telescope – A Research Rotation Report

The ATLAST space telescope conceptUWAB graduate student Giada Arney visited NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to work with VPL researcher and former UWAB postdoc Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman in April-June 2015 to work on simulators for a future large space telescope concept that would be able to directly detect and spectrally characterize exoplanets. She reports here on her experience working on ATLAST, the Advanced Technology Large Aperture Space Telescope concept that would be 8-16 meters in diameter!

Read More >

The Gaseous Signatures of Unusual Life – A Research Rotation Report

UWAB graduate Megan Smith went to NASA Ames Research Center to work with VPL researcher Dr. Niki Parenteau. SheMeg collecting samplesperformed fieldwork analyzing anoxygenic photosynthetic bacteria (e.g. purple sulfur bacteria) to understand what gases these organisms produce. Perhaps, in the future, such gases could be detected in the spectra of exoplanets, so it is important to understand and measure what gases are produced and in what quantities.

Read More >

A Report from the FameLab Competition

FameLab LogoUWAB graduate students Giada Arney and Eddie Schwieterman competed in the NASA-sponsored Famelab science communication contest during the Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) in Chicago this June. Famelab is an international science communication competition designed to “engage and entertain” by explaining complex scientific concepts in relatable three-minute presentations. The theme of the competition was “Exploring the Earth and Beyond”.  Both students advanced to the final round after getting high marks from judges in the preliminary round.  

Read More >

UWAB @ A Glance

  • UWAB welcomed six new students into the program: Michael Diamond (Atmos Sci.), Andrew Lincowski (Astronomy), Owen Lehmer (ESS), Robert Tournay (SEFS), Diana Windemuth (Astronomy), and Jon Zaloumis (ESS). In addition, Jacqui Saunders (Oceanography), Nichole Barry (Physics) and Marshall Styczinski (Physics) joined as affiliate students.

  • UWAB graduated five students in the last year: Regina Carns (ESS), Wolf Clifton (Museology), Kelly Hillbun (ESS), Amit Misra (Astronomy), and Meg Smith (ESS). Congratulations graduates!
  • The Astrobiology Colloquium this has year 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

  • The VPL at UW is now a founding member of NASA’s new Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NeXSS) research network and is credited for being part of the inspiration for the formation of this scientific "super group"!

  • Recent UWAB graduate Eva Stüeken, UWAB grad student Mat Koehler and Prof. Roger Buick had a paper accepted to Nature on isotopic evidence of biological nitrogen fixation 3.2 billion years ago.
  • VPL graduate student Rodrigo Luger and Professors Rory Barnes and Victoria Meadows have found that some terrestrial planets in the habitable zones of low mass stars could be evaporated cores of small Neptune-like planets.
  • VPL graduate student Edward Schwieterman, professor Victoria Meadows, and Professor Charles Cockell at the UK Centre for Astrobiology presented an interdisciplinary study of the possibility of non-photosynthetic organisms creating signs of life on Earth-like exoplanets.
  • UWAB graduate students Dr. Amit Misra, Joshua Krissansen-Totton, Matt Koehler, and Steven Sholes collaborated on an interdisciplinary paper on how to detect geological evidence on exoplanets by looking for signs of volcanic activity in the atmosphere.

  • VPL student Edward Schwieterman, Professor Victoria Meadows, and researchers Dr. Amit Misra, Dr. Tyler Robinson, and Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman have demonstrated that the collisional absorption signature of nitrogen gas can be detected in Earth’s spectrum wth remote observations.
  • 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.

  • Professor Eric Agol recently led a study with Professor Victoria Meadows and researcher Dr. Tyler Robinson on how to detect moons orbiting exoplanets using wavelengths of light where the moon outshines the planet.

  • Professor Rory Barnes and researcher Dr. Peter Driscoll studied habitable planets orbiting close to low mass M dwarf stars and concluded they can be protected by magnetic fields.

  • UWAB recent graduate Eva Stüeken and Professor Roger Buick have collaborated on a paper about nitrogen isotope evidence on Archean continents that imply that the Archean oceans were not alkaline, contrary to the "early Soda Ocean" hypothesis.

  • Professor David Catling and colleagues has authored a paper on modeling salt precipitation from brines on Mars.

  • UWAB students Elena Amador and Edward Schwieterman took part of large, interdisciplinary collaboration to study analytical life detection techniques in the field based on work in Iceland

  • VPL postdoc Dr. Benjamin Charnay, Professor Victoria Meadows, and and collaborator Jeremy Leconte of the Laboratoire de Meteorologie Dynamique in Paris published a paper on vertical mixing in exoplanet GJ 1214 b’s atmosphere, which has a high altitude layer of thick clouds or haze

  • VPL postdoc Dr. Benjamin Charnay, Professor Victoria Meadows, UWAB alum Dr. Amit Misra, and graduate student Giada Arney published a paper about the spectrum of exoplanet GJ 1214 b


  • Congratulations to Professor Rory Barnes who won the Beatrice M. Tinsley Research Scholar Award at UT Austin

  • UWAB alum Aomawa Shields is a 2015 TED Fellow and gave a TED talk in Vancouver in March 2015. Congratulations Aomawa!

  • Contratulations to UWAB Alum Mark Claire on his award of the a multi-million dollar European Research Council grant to study isotopes on early Earth! Mark got his start on isotope geochemistry on his UWAB research rotation.

  • Congratulations to Michael Kipp and Jon Zaloumis on being awarded NSF Graduate Fellowhsips!

  • Jacqui Saunders, Diana Windemuth, and Joshua Krissansen-Totton were awarded NESSF graduate fellowships!

  • 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. 

  • Graduate Student Edward Schwieterman won runner up in the FameLab preliminary competition in Chicago, IL

  • Graduate student Matt Koehler won a scholarship to the 2014 International Summer School in Astrobiology in Santander, Spain.
  • Graduate student Giada Arney won a scholarship to attend the Australian Center for Astrobiology "Grand Tour".

  • Graduate students Michael Kipp, Steven Sholes, Paul Kitner, and Joshua Krissansen-Totton were awarded scholarships to attend the NAI Nordic Summer School for Astrobiology in Iceland

Use this link to view our Fall 2015 Newsletter: