UWAB 2017 Fall Newsletter

UW Astrobiology Program

Fall 2017

A Word From the Director

Vikki Meadows's profile picture Astronomers in the University of Washington’s Astrobiology Program are continuing their exciting discoveries of nearby potentially habitable planets, and were key players in the discoveries of the spectacular TRAPPIST-1 system of seven exoplanets. In the next five years, the launch of the NASA James Webb Space Telescope in 2019 and advances in large telescopes on the ground will provide humanity with its first chance to look for life on these planets. Our Astrobiology Program students and faculty continue to be at the forefront of developing new ways to look for life beyond the Earth, and to train the next generation of interdisciplinary explorers. With the search for life on exoplanets imminent, the University of Washington’s Astrobiology Program and the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL), which is hosted at UW, are poised to lead the way on data acquisition and analysis,and interpretation of the data on potentially habitable planets that these new telescopes will bring us. This role has resulted in more recognition for our researchers over the past year: some of it serious, with nominations to key community science and mission leadership roles, and others more fun, with the UW Astrobiology Program and the VPL being featured heavily in NASA’s latest astrobiology graphic novel (see below).

Our community continues to grow and excel, and we welcome three new graduate students this year: Zachary Cohen (Chemistry), Dominic Sivitilli (Psychology), and Guadalupe Tovar (Astronomy) who won an NSF Graduate Fellowship and is a Husky 100 Undergraduate. We also welcomed five new post docs: Kim Bott (Astronomy/VPL), Baptiste Journaux (ESS), Olivier Bollengier (ESS), Mackenzie Day (ESS) and Shintaro Kadoya (ESS). We also graduated four students, who go on to bright futures: Elena Amador (ESS & Astrobiology) is now a postdoc at Caltech, Rodrigo Luger (Astronomy & Astrobiology) takes up a coveted Fellowship at the Flatiron Institute in New York next year, Russell Deitrick (Astronomy & Astrobiology) leaves us for a postdoctoral position at the University of Bern, and Paul Kintner (ESS) earned a Master’s degree with a certificate in Astrobiology. This year in news from our alumni Dr. Kyle Costa (2013, Microbiology/Astrobiology Certificate) also garnered a faculty position in Plant and Microbial Biology at the University of Minnesota, and alumnus Dr. Giada Arney (2016, Astronomy & Astrobiology) was promoted to a leadership role as the lead of the LUVOIR science support analysis team at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Dr. Jesse Colangelo-Lillis (2012, Oceanography/Astrobiology Certificate) was awarded a C-DEBI Postdoctoral Fellowship at CU-Boulder. Jaci Saunders (Oceanography & Astrobiology) won a NASA Astrobiology Institute Postdoctoral Fellowship at MIT, working with Dr. Tanya Bosak.

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Life Beyond the Solar System

Vikki_JWST UW Astrobiology members featured prominently in the latest graphic novel from the NASA Astrobiology Program. This issue, "Living beyond the Solar System", features our faculty and students riding telescopes and hurling planets, as we describe discoveries and explain scientific concepts for the general public. This issue focuses on the search for life outside our Solar System, on the thousands of exoplanets discovered orbiting other stars. These graphic novels explain astrobiological concepts and methods in layman terms, which along with the illustrations, make these graphic novels informative and fun for the public to learn about Astrobiology. This issue includes a short history of the discoveries of exoplanets and how astronomers look for and characterize other worlds. The James Webb Space Telescope features, since it will soon attempt to probe the potential habitability of rocky worlds around nearby small stars. This issue also highlights what the Earth and terrestrial bodies of the Solar System can tell us in our search for life on exoplanets. Among the main characters, this issue features our Director, Prof. Vikki Meadows, who is supported by many members and alumni of UW’s Astrobiology Program. They include Josh Krissansen-Totton (ESS/AB), Dr. Rodrigo Luger (Astronomy/AB), Prof. Cecilia Bitz (Atmospheric Sciences/AB), Prof. Rory Barnes (Astronomy/AB), Prof. Eric Agol (Astronomy/AB), and Prof. John Baross (Oceanography/AB). Alumni include Prof. Tyler Robinson (Astronomy & Astrobiology, 2012), Dr. Giada Arney (Astronomy & Astrobiology, 2016), and Dr. Eddie Schwieterman (Astronomy & Astrobiology, 2016). The NASA Astrobiology graphic novels are available here.


AbSciCon 2019 in Seattle, WA!

AbSciCon 2019 poster

NASA graphic artist Aaron Gronstal

Seattle will be the Astrobiology capital of the US come 2019 when the UW Astrobiology Program will be hosting the Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) 2019. We will be welcoming all Astrobiology educators, students, researchers, and aficionados. We will keep you posted with updates and volunteering opportunities!

UW Astrobiology Spring Colloquium

Our Fall 2017 Colloquium, organized by Professor Victoria Meadows, was a great success and we are now inviting speakers for our next colloquium in Spring 2018. Dr. Kim Bott (Astronomy) is organizing the next colloquium. A sneak peek of our Spring line-up shows talks by Dr. Rika Anderson (Carleton College, viruses and genomics), Dr. Evgenya Shkolnik (ASU, M dwarf stars as planetary hosts), Dr. Carrie Albertin (U Chicago, organismal biology ’ anatomy) , Dr. Sarah Stewart Johnson (Georgetown University, life detection on Mars), Dr. Tara Djokic (UNSW, paleoarchean terrestrial hot springs), and more!

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!

Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Giada Arney

Giada's profile pictureUWAB former grad student Dr. Giada Arney (Astronomy & Astrobiology, 2016) is a NASA Goddard Space Flight Center scientist juggling multiple responsibilities as part of the team designing a future space telescope—LUVOIR; giving high-profile talks to the general public about her research (her latest talk was at the Carnegie Institution for Science, which you can watch here); mentoring students and interns; and leading teams. Continue reading >

Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Eva Stüeken

Eva Stueeken's profile imageUWAB former grad student Dr. Eva Stüeken (ESS & Astrobiology, 2014) studies the origin and early evolution of the biosphere at the University of St. Andrews. Known for her firm handshake and non-stop work ethic, Dr. Stüeken splits her time between teaching, going on research field work, and running geochemical analyses and experimental simulations. Continue reading >

Where in the World Are Our Astrobiologists?

Map pins with all locations

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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Atmospheric pressure from rocks: a South African field campaign

Erik Goosmann field photoIn August 2017, ESS student Erik Goosmann teamed up with Professor Roger Buick for 3 weeks in Koegas, South Africa, and Tobolsk, Swaziland, to investigate atmospheric pressure from rocks.

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Computational strategies underlying collective decision making in the arms of Octopus: An alternative model for cognition

Octopus in tracking spacePsychology student Dominic Sivitilli studies the mechanisms underlying a convergent case of intelligence by characterizing arm coordination in the octopus, paving the way to the study of an alternative model for cognition. He seeks to broaden the limits of how we think of cognition while simultaneously engaging the question of the form and evolution of the mind beyond Earth.

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Give a Gift

  • Many essential 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 give a gift. If you need any assistance, let us know.

UWAB @ A Glance

  • UWAB welcomed three new students into the program this year: Guadalupe Tovar (Astronomy), Zachary Cohen (Chemistry), Dominic Sivitilli (Psychology). Read their biographies.

  • UWAB graduated four students in the last year: Elena Amador (ESS), Rodrigo Luger (Astronomy), Russell Dietrick (Astronomy), Paul Kinter (ESS).

  • Four students are now PhD candidates after passing their general exams: Diana Windemuth (Astronomy), Brett Morris (Astronomy), Osa Igbinosun (Aeronautics and Astronautics), Michael Kipp (ESS).

  • UWAB welcomed five postdocs: Kim Bott (VPL), Baptiste Journaux (ESS), Olivier Bollengier (ESS), Mackenzie Day (ESS) and Shintaro Kadoya (ESS).

  • 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

  • Astronomy postdoc Kim Bott traveled with astronomers, instrument builders and biologists to Yellowstone National Park this August to measure polarization signatures from microbial mats..

  • UWAB graduate Dr. Kyle Costa published a paper in Science titled “Pyocyanin degradation by a tautomerizing demethylase inhibits Pseudomonas aeruginosa biofilms” showing that modulating extracellular redox-active metabolites can influence the fitness of a biofilm-forming microorganism. Read more.

  • UWAB alumni Drs. Julie Huber and Rika Anderson published a Nature Communications article on the genomic variation in microbial populations inhabiting the marine subseafloor at deep-sea hydrothermal vents. You can read the paper online.

  • Steven Sholes (ESS), Megan Smith (ESS, 2015), Mark Claire(Astronomy, 2008), Kevin Zahnle, and Prof. David Catling published an Icarus paper on modeling the atmospheric effects of volcanic eruptions on past Mars and how they would have created anoxic conditions conducive to the formation of pre-biotic chemistry.

  • Dr. Eva Stüeken, Michael Kipp, Matt Koehler, Dr. Eddie Schwieterman , and Prof. Roger Buick have had their article on modeling pN2 through geological time highlighted in the most recent Astrobiology issue.

  • Prof. Eric Agol (Astronomy/AB, VPL) contributed to the analysis resulting in the discovery that at least seven planets with sizes and masses similar to the Earth revolve around TRAPPIST-1 (Gillon et al., 2017), a nearby, very small red dwarf star. The NASA press release can be read here.

  • Dr. Rodrigo Luger (Astronomy/AB, VPL), along with Prof. Eric Agol (Astronomy/AB, VPL), used data from the K2 telescope to confirm TRAPPIST-1 h, the smallest and coldest planet in the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanet system, and found that all seven planets in the system are linked by an intricate chain of three-body resonances. Read more here

  • Prof. Cecilia Bitz and colleagues have a new paper accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal. The paper looks at the basic rules governing planetary ice extent on Earth-like exoplanets at different obliquities.

  • The Proxima Centauri b II paper led by Prof. Vikki Meadows and a significant UWAB group was accepted to Astrobiology. The paper describes the possible observational characteristics of terrestrial planets orbiting M dwarfs and how we might use upcoming telescopes to explore the environments of these alien Earths.

  • UW led a large contigent to the 2017 Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon2017), and gave talks on exoplanet habitability, early Earth, the formation of Earth-like planets, and exoplanet biosignatures. View the program to reach links to detailed abstracts.

  • Prof. Vikki Meadows and students Andrew Lincowski (Astronomy/AB) and Jacob Lustig-Yaeger (Astronomy/AB) gave plenary talks at Habitable Worlds 2017: A System Science Workshop, which took place in Laramie, Wyoming, in November. View the program to reach links to detailed abstracts.

  • In May 2017, we hosted renowned exoplanet researchers Drs. Guillem Anglada-Escude (lead discoverer of Proxima Centauri b) and Olivier Guyon (Project Scientist for the Subaru Telescope) in Kane Hall. The panel, led by Professor Rory Barnes (UW Astronomy/AB) and Jake Lustig-Yaeger (UW Astronomy/AB graduate student), discussed the discovery of Proxima Centauri b, the planet’s potential to support life, and future plans to explore the planet.


  • Owen Lehmer (ESS) and Guadalupe Tovar (Astronomy) won scholarships to attend the NASA/ESA International Summer School in Astrobiology in Santander, Spain.

  • Professor Stephen Warren (ESS) was elected a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union.

  • Professor Eric Agol (Astronomy) received the Lecar Prize from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the prestgious Guggenheim Fellowship.

  • Professor Victoria Meadows (Astronomy) became a Visiting Professor at Astrobiology Center of the University of Tokyo, a Senior Editor for Astrobiology Journal, and was nominated Chair of the NASA Exoplanet Analysis Group (ExoPAG) and to join the NASA Astrophyisics Advisory Committee.

  • Students Michael Diamond (Atmospheric Sciences/AB) and Andrew Lincowski (Astronomy/AB) each won a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship (NESSF).

  • Astronomy/AB student Guadalupe Tovar won a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP)

  • Dr. Jaci Saunders (2016, Oceanography) won a NASA Astrobiology Institute NPP Fellowship at UW.

  • The UW Astrobiology Program and the VPL Team were featured in the latest installment of the NASA Astrobiology Graphic Novel.

  • Professor David Catling (ESS) won a prestigious Simons Collaboration on the Origin of Life award to study early Earth environmental conditions.

  • Prof. Victoria Meadows led a team of Astrobiology faculty, students and collaborators who submitted a proposal to the NASA Astrobiology Institute to fund five more years of the UW’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory. If awarded, the proposal includes ~$1.1M of matching funds for the Astrobiology Program

  • Dr. Kyle Costa (2013, Microbiology) has accepted a faculty position in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at the University of Minnesota starting in March 2018 following a postdoctorship at Caltech.

  • Dr. Jesse Colangelo-Lillis (2012, Oceanography/ Astrobiology Certificate) started as a research associate at CU-Boulder and was awarded the C-DEBI postdoctoral fellowship.