archive: SETI FW: [ASTRO] University Of Washington Prepares First Graduate Program In Astrobiology

SETI FW: [ASTRO] University Of Washington Prepares First Graduate Program In Astrobiology

Larry Klaes ( )
Thu, 1 Oct 1998 09:28:06 -0400

From: Ron Baalke
Sent: Wednesday, September 30, 1998 10:01 PM
Subject: [ASTRO] University Of Washington Prepares First Graduate Program In Astrobiology

University of Washington

FROM: Vince Stricherz, 206-935-7430,


James Staley: (206) 543-0461 or (206) 543-6646 or e-mail at

Woodruff Sullivan: (206) 543-7773 or (206) 543-2888 or e-mail at

Conway Leovy: (206) 543-4952 or e-mail at

Richard Gammon: (206) 543-1609 or (206) 543-4301 or e-mail at


UW prepares for first graduate program in astrobiology to train those who
will hunt for life in outer space

The University of Washington is poised to become the first institution
anywhere to launch a doctoral program specifically geared to train
scientists to search for life on celestial bodies such as Mars or Europa,
an icy moon of Jupiter.

The astrobiology program will be financed by a 5-year, $2 million grant
announced today by the National Science Foundation and supplemented by
$500,000 from the university.

The highly interdisciplinary curriculum will involve 11 UW degree programs --
Oceanography, Astronomy, Aeronautics & Astronautics, Genetics, Chemistry,
Biochemistry, Microbiology, Atmospheric Sciences, Geophysics, Geological
Sciences and History. Graduates can receive degrees in any of those areas,
with an endorsement noting an emphasis in astrobiology.

The School of Oceanography will provide dedicated laboratory space for
students to study organisms that live in extreme conditions. Oceanography
professors John Delaney and Jody Deming and associate professor John Baross have closely studied organisms living in high-temperature, high-pressure conditions in ocean environments where little light penetrates.
Baross is trying to relate the conditions in which those organisms live now to
conditions when life began on Earth 3.5 billion years ago.

Two entities outside the university also are participating. The Pacific
Northwest National Laboratory in Richland will offer students a chance to
study microbial life in the subterranean basalt formations in Eastern
Washington. ZymoGenetics Inc. of Seattle, a subsidiary of Novo Nordisk A/S
of Denmark that is interested in enzymes from unusual bacteria, is offering
summer internships so students can pursue that work.

"We recognize that there is a good possibility that life exists in the solar
system outside Earth, but if that life does exist it would be microbial, not
the higher forms," said James Staley, a UW microbiology professor who is the
principal investigator for astrobiology.

Likely sites for such life are Mars, where there is evidence of water, or
the ice-clad moon Europa. The key to finding life in such forbidding
environments is understanding how life exists in extreme conditions on Earth
-- such as hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, undersea vents where no
sunlight penetrates and temperatures reach several hundred degrees, pools of
brine within polar sea ice, and volcanic basalt formations.

"We have microbial systems on Earth that are good models for those on Mars
or Europa, and those systems are poorly studied," Staley said. He added that
such life forms were the precursor to advanced life on Earth, so their
presence on other planets could signal the eventual evolution of advanced
life there, as well.

The idea for an astrobiology program grew out of a special seminar, Planets
and Life, offered at the university in 1996 shortly after the discovery of
planets orbiting nearby stars and an announcement that NASA scientists
possibly had found microbial fossils inside a Martian rock. That claim since
has drawn much scientific skepticism, but the success of the seminar -- it
was attended by 30 graduate students and 20 post-doctoral researchers and
faculty, and it sparked much campus excitement -- laid a foundation for a
program in astrobiology.

Woodruff Sullivan, a UW astronomy professor and adjunct history professor,
spearheaded the seminar and is an astrobiology co-investigator. He expects
about a dozen students when the program begins in the fall quarter of 1999.

But there is much to be done before then. Five new courses must be designed
to complement existing courses that will be included in the curriculum,
Sullivan said. Departments involved will have to devise different ways of
testing and grading students involved in astrobiology, since an astrobiology
student pursuing a degree in astronomy, for instance, will have
significantly different course demands than other astronomy students.
One-third of astrobiology course work will be in areas not closely related
to the student's home department, so an astronomy astrobiology student might spend a great deal of time studying microbiology.

Students also must take part in an annual workshop, three days of work in
the field. It could be looking for microbes at the Hanford Nuclear
Reservation, Sullivan said, or using an electron microscope to study comet
dust. "Everyone will have to get their hands dirty."

Conway Leovy, a UW atmospheric sciences professor and also a co-investigator, expects the program to be an education for faculty members as well as students. But he said the students will be particularly challenged as they blaze a new path, and it will be some time before the first doctoral degrees in astrobiology are awarded.

"Astrobiology students will have to learn rigorously as well as more broadly
than most other science graduate students," Leovy said. "We probably can't
expect to see the fruits of our efforts in the form of many Ph. D. graduates
sooner than five years from now."

Richard Gammon, who is a UW chemistry and oceanography professor and also is an adjunct professor of atmospheric sciences, helped write a financing
proposal for the astrobiology degree program. He believes the approach of
breaching traditional barriers between different science disciplines was a
key to National Science Foundation support.

"All of these efforts are to meet the needs of students of the future, who
are going to need training across fields," Gammon said.

The UW is one of 17 universities sharing in $40.5 million in National
Science Foundation graduate education and research training grants. For more
information about the NSF program, visit on the
World Wide Web.