1. 2012 Astrobiology Graduate Conference

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    AbGradCon attendees visiting the ATHLETE rover prototype at JPL.

    The 9th Astrobiology Graduate Conference (AbGradCon) was held at Caltech and JPL from August 26th-30th 2012. There were 91 attendees from over 50 institutions from around the U.S. and internationally. In addition there were 15 participants in our undergraduate and high school student research poster competition.

    All of the talks were streamed live via the SAGANet website and the posters were uploaded for viewing at the Quilt website.

    The event’s main sponsorship was the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for Academic Partnerships, and our host was Caltech. Additional sponsors include the Geological Society of America (GSA), Colorado School of Mines, Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft und Raumfahrt/German Aerospace Center (DLR), The Planetary Society, Agência Espacial Brasileira/Brazilian Space Agency (AEB), The Canadian Astrobiology Training Program (CATP), and from Georgia the Shota Rustaveli National Science Foundation.

    The first three days of the conference took place at Caltech and included morning and afternoon lecture sessions covering the topics: Metabolism and Evolution, Extremophiles and Adaptations, Prebiotic Chemistry, Exoplanets and Organics in Space, Planetary Habitability, Earth Analogs and Biosignatures. Each session theme was first introduced by “warm-up” talks to provide background material on the upcoming talks to people in the audience who were not experts in that specific field.

    Two poster sessions were also held during the evenings after lectures. A unique feature, helping to blend the in-person and online viewing of posters, was the printing of QR codes that were placed beside posters so that comments and question by people viewing in-person could be left on the website for the presenter to respond to later if they were not there in the moment someone passed by.

    On Monday afternoon a career panel answered questions and gave advice about careers in the planetary sciences. Tuesday afternoon focused on collaboration, as one of the most exciting parts of AbGradCon is the cross-disciplinary cross-pollination. Wednesday afternoon was dedicated to our high school and undergraduate poster competition. Graduate student and postdoc attendees viewed and judged 15 different posters of high school or undergraduate research. When possible, presenters attended their poster in person or via skype to allow them to interact with the judges.

    This is the second year that AbGradCon has hosted the competition and this year we were able to increase participation by nearly a factor of four over the previous year. We think this is an excellent outreach tool, especially when it is able to involve high school students.

    On the fourth and last day of the conference we went on a field trip to JPL. There we were able to view the exciting ATHLETE rover prototype, listen to talks about MSL from chief engineer Rob Manning, mission planning by Karla Clark, and receive overviews of the NAI Titan and Icy Worlds teams by Mark Allen, Pat Beauchamp, and Isik Kanik respectively. Lastly we went on a general tour to the Space Flight Operations Facility, the Spacecraft Assembly Facility, and the JPL museum.

    It was a busy but fantastic week, we thank all of our sponsors for continuing to support early career astrobiologists and allowing us to produce this unique conference.