UWAB 2016 Fall Newsletter

UW Astrobiology Program

Fall 2016

A Word From the Director

Vikki Meadows's profile picture With the discovery of Proxima Centauri b, a possibly terrestrial planet orbiting in the habitable zone of the nearest star to the Sun, the search for life beyond the Solar System has come even closer to home! The University of Washington’s Astrobiology Program is at the forefront of exciting new efforts to look for life beyond the Earth, and to train the next generation of interdisciplinary explorers. Our community works to push new frontiers of knowledge of our place in the Universe that cannot be fully explored by a single researcher or a single discipline.

Our community continues to grow and excel, and happily, I have a lot to report from the past year. This year our PhD graduates included Dr. Giada Arney (Astronomy & Astrobiology), who won a NASA Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Goddard Space Flight Center, Dr. Eddie Schwieterman (Astronomy & Astrobiology) who won a NASA Astrobiology Institute Postdoctoral Fellowship at UC – Riverside, and Dr. Jaci Saunders (Oceanography & Astrobiology) who is now a postdoc at the University of Washington. Coming up, graduate student Elena Amador (Earth and Space Sciences and Astrobiology) will defend her dissertation in February 2017, and then take up a postdoctoral position at Caltech.

I also want to highlight and send my congratulations to the Astrobiology class of 2013-2014, four of whom were snapped up for tenure-track faculty positions this year! Dr. Rika Anderson (Oceanography and Astrobiology) is now an Assistant Professor at Carleton College. Dr. Aomawa Shields (Astronomy and Astrobiology) is an Assistant Professor at UC – Irvine (and also won the Origins Lectureship at ASU). Dr. Jeff Bowman (Oceanography and Astrobiology) is an Assistant Professor at Scripps Oceanographic Institute, and Dr. Eva Stüeken is just about to take up a Lectureship at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland.

We welcome a large incoming class of 8 new students this year. They are Tyler Gordon and Hayden Smotherman in Astronomy, Erik Goosman, Jana Meixnerova, Lauren O’Neil and Addien Wray in Earth and Space Sciences, and Zac Cooper and Hannah Dawson in Oceanography. We also welcome new Astrobiology Faculty member Prof. Jodi Young who joined the Astrobiology Program after starting as an Assistant Professor in the UW Oceanography Department. Jodi comes to us via Oxford and Princeton, and has research interests that include the evolution of photosynthesis in phytoplankton, and polar marine research. Astrobiology faculty member Prof. Rory Barnes – who works on orbital dynamical and other effects on planetary habitability – was promoted from research professor to tenure-track Assistant Professor in Astronomy. Congratulations to both Jodi and Rory on their new positions!

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ESO's Proxima Cen b

Artist’s impression of Proxima Centauri b from ESO/M. Kornmesser

Guillem Escuda's profile pictureDistinguished Lecture Series: Guillem Anglada-Escudé

We are thrilled to host Dr. Guillem Anglada-Escudé in May 2017! Dr. Anglada-Escudé led the team that discovered Proxima Centauri b, a possibly rocky planet in the habitable zone of the nearest start to our Sun. Dr. Anglada-Escudé will give a public talk on his team’s discovery on May 3rd in Kane Hall 120 at 7 pm.

UW Astrobiology Spring Colloquium

Our Fall 2016 Colloquium was a great success and we are now inviting speakers for our next colloquium in Spring 2017. Now is the time to let us know if there is a speaker you have been wanting to meet or know of an astrobiologist doing interesting work that you would like to see in the Spring!

UW Bookstore Speaker: David Grinspoon

Astrobiologist David Grinspoon will be giving a talk at the UW Bookstore in the UDistrict on January 10 at 7 pm. Dr. Grinspoon assesses climate change by comparing the Earth’s story to those of other planets. Without minimizing the challenges of the next century, Grinspoon suggests that our present moment is not only one of peril, but also great potential, especially when viewed from a 10,000-year perspective.

Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Nick Cowan

Nick Cowan's profile imageUWAB former grad student Dr. Nick Cowan (Astronomy & Astrobiology, 2009) conducts research on exoplanets at McGill University, where he is an Assistant Professor in the Physics and Earth & Planetary Sciences departments teaching Astrobiology courses.

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Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Rika Anderson

Rika Anderson's profile imageUWAB former grad student Dr. Rika Anderson (Oceanography & Astrobiology, 2013) works arduously for better opportunities for minority and underprivileged high school students in Tucson, AZ. She will start her appointment as a tenure-track Assistant Professor at Carleton College in January 2017. At UW, she conducted research on viruses in deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

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Where in the World Are Our Astrobiologists?

Students standing in Muir

Photograph by Jacob Lustig-Yaeger, 2016

The UWAB Program encourages, supports, and in many cases, organizes educational experiences for astrobiology students in our program and around the world. Read on to discover the places we visited this past year!

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Dust Storms in East Asia: A Research Rotation Report

Deitrick's correlation mapAstronomy student Russell Deitrick teamed up with Professor Cecilia Bitz in UW’s Atmospheric Sciences department. Recent work by Wang et al. (2008) found that the occurrence of dust events in the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts of East Asia were correlated with increased global surface temperatures, so Deitrick re-analyzed wind data to confirm and expand on those results. Specifically, he looked for correlations with surface temperature, soil moisture, wind speeds, and arctic sea ice. As polar temperatures increase more rapidly than tropical temperature, we would expect that dust events would become less common.

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Isotope Analysis with Thiobacillus Denitrificans: A Research Rotation Report

Matthew Koehler labESS student Matthew Koehler went to St. Andrews, Scotland to work with Dr. Aubrey Zerkle and VPL researcher Dr. Mark Claire (also UWAB alum). He grew a species of bacteria, Thiobacillus Denitrificans (TD), which uses oxidized nitrogen-containing molecules such as nitrate and nitrite to oxidize reduced sulfur species. Both nitrogen and sulfur isotopes are used in the geologic record to interpret past microbial ecology and environmental conditions, so the isotopic ratios of both nitrogen and sulfur can be used to interpret the history of biological activity in the geological record.

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Give a Gift

  • Many aspects of the UWAB program, including workshops, student scholarships, travel and research funding support, and public events, are made possible by the generosity of our donors. If you would like to make a gift to support our students, you may donate online. If you need any assistance, let us know.

UWAB @ A Glance

  • UWAB welcomed eight new students into the program this year: Tyler Gordon (Astronomy), Lauren O’Neil (ESS), Hannah Dawson (Oceanography), Addien Wray (ESS), Erik Goosmann (ESS), Zac Cooper (Oceanography), Jana Meixnerova (ESS) and Hayden Smotherman (Astronomy).

  • UWAB graduated three students in the last year: Giada Arney (Astronomy), Jaci Saunders (Oceanography), and Eddie Schwieterman (Astronomy).

  • Astrobiologists from all over the country traveled to UW to talk about their research. If you missed any of our talks, most are recorded and are available for viewing on the NAI’s UW Seminar website.

Science Highlights

  • Prof. David Catling and Dr. Eva Stueeken analyzed selenium isotopes to study redox conditions in Neoproterozoic Earth and later published their results in Nature Communications.

  • Check out The Astrobiology Primer v2.0, the result of the interdisciplinary collaboration of dozens of Astrobiologists worldwide, many of them UWAB faculty and past and current students.

  • Rodrigo Luger (Astronomy) developed a new method to de-trend K2 light curves named EVEREST.

  • Elena Amador (ESS) found evidence of aqueous activity and alteration in Nili Fossae, Mars.

  • Josh Krissansen-Totton (ESS) and Prof. David Catling published an article on detecting biospheres using atmospheric chemical disequilibrium.

  • Prof. Jody Deming and Max Showalter (Oceanography) developed a submersible digital holographic microscope (DHM) that is capable of resolving individual bacterial cells and recently published an article on its utility.

  • Josh Krissansen-Totton, Eddie Schwieterman, Benjamin Charnay, Giada Arney, Ty Robinson, Victoria Meadows, and David Catling recently published an article in The Astrophysical Journal on whether potential Earth-like exoplanets could be identified via UV-visible-to-near-infrared wavelength broadband photometry.

  • Profs. Rory Barnes and Victoria Meadows developed a method that identifies the exoplanets most worthy of follow-up observations in our search for life beyond the Solar System.


  • Chloe Hart and Paul Kintner (ESS) won scholarships to attend the NASA/ESA International Summer School in Astrobiology in Santander, Spain.

  • Elena Amador (ESS) will be joining the imaging spectroscopy group at Caltech.

  • Brett Morris and Diana Windemuth (Astronomy) are the Astronomy Department’s Pre-MAP (Pre Major in Astronomy Program) TA and mentor respectively. They help first-year students who are traditionally underrepresented in Astronomy learn research techniques in small supportive groups with one-on-one mentoring.

  • Michael Kipp (ESS) and Dr. Eva Stueeken gave presentations at the leading geochemical conference, the Goldschmidt Conference, in Yokohama, Japan.

  • Dr. Eva Stueeken (2014, ESS) will start in January as a University Research Fellow at the University of St. Andrews. She plans to continue working on environmental proxies and biosignatures in the Precambrian.

  • Dr. Jeff Bowman (2014, Oceanography) has been hired to a faculty position in the Integrative Oceanography Division at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. He will explore microbial ecosystem function in the global ocean and continue to use this knowledge to better understand the habitability of ocean worlds in our solar system.

  • Dr. Rika Anderson (2013, Oceanography), a current NASA Postdoctorate Program (NPP) Fellow, was appointed to the position of Assistant Professor at Carleton College.

  • Dr. Aomawa Shields (2014, Astronomy) has a new appointment as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UC Irvine. She is currently an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow and a past TED presenter.

  • Prof. Rory Barnes from the Astronomy Department was promoted to tenured-track Assistant Professor.

  • Prof. Sharon Doty from the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences was promoted from Associate to Full Professor.

  • Prof. Stephen Warren was elected a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union.

  • Prof. Eric Agol received the Lecar Prize from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.