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2006 Annual Science Report

University of Arizona Reporting  |  JUL 2005 – JUN 2006

Module 4: Strengthening the Astrobiology Community

Project Summary

LAPLACE continues to realize its goals of strengthen the astrobiology community through innovative interdisciplinary graduate education

4 Institutions
3 Teams
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Field Sites

Project Progress

LAPLACE continues to realize its goals of strengthen the astrobiology community through innovative interdisciplinary graduate education. In year one, we hosted the first Astrobiology Graduate Student Conference. In year two, we partnered with NAI colleagues at the University of Washington hosting an exchange which brought 14 graduate students to Arizona and Kitt Peak Observatory for three days of hands-on training in the astronomical aspects of astrobiology. This year we continued this program participating in another exchange with U.W., hosted our first Winter School in Arizona, continued our successful Journal Club, taught a graduate course in the Origins of Stars, Planets, and Life, and participated in the Templeton Lecture Series: Astrobiology and the Sacred. In addition LAPLACE participated in organizing a new College of Science lecture series, with the first lectures on “Evolution”.

Highlighted Accomplishments:

  • LAPLACE students participated in an exchange with the University of Washington, sending 14 students and post-docs to work with members of the U.W. NAI node focused on the life sciences.
  • LAPLACE hosted 22 students from across the country, and 7 students from around the world (most from NAI affiliated institutions) in our first Astrobiology Winter School held in Tucson January 3-9, 2006.
  • Graduate students from three different departments in the College of Science participated in our interdisciplinary graduate course “Origins of Stars Planets and Life” taught in spring, 2006.
  • Continuation of our Astrobiology Journal Club run by post-doc Daniel Apai including several distinguished outside speakers and average weekly attendance of 10-15 scholars from several different departments.
  • Participation in the Templeton Lecture Series Astrobiology and the Sacred.
  • Initiation of College of Science lecture series with “Evolution”
  • School teacher training associated with both above series.

LAPLACE-U.W. Exchange — Phase II

14 students and post-docs (and one faculty advisor) from LAPLACE node of the NAI traveled to Seattle to participate in four day activity focused on astrobiology. The event took them to the University of Washington’s Marine Biology Labs on Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, in Puget Sound where they participated in discussions, activities, and hands-on learning experiences in the life sciences. Figure 4.1 The highlight of the event was a trip on a research vessel to collect specimens from ocean; then back in the lab they studied the body plans of invertebrates to illustrate the Cambrian Explosion. Students learned techniques of DNA sequencing and mathematical algorithms in order to construct a (very small) portion of the “tree” of life. These activities contributed to the evening discussions concerning the origin and evolution of life. This event was hosted by Woody Sullivan and John Baross and attended by visiting LAPLACE colleague Tom Olien (Humber College).

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First LAPLACE Winter School 2006

The first LAPLACE Astrobiology Winter School was held January 3-9, 2006. 22 students from across North America representing several NAI node institutions, as well as seven additional students from around the world including Australia, Spain, and the Netherlands participated in the school. Most of the students were graduate students in the biological, chemical, and geological sciences who were interested in learning more about the astronomical aspects of astrobiology. The school began with a series of sessions held in Tucson, Arizona on the campus of the University of Arizona. Each session consisted of a short introductory lecture, a hands-on activity or laboratory exercise, and a follow-up discussion/question-and-answer concerning the latest results or future research directions. Sessions covered: 1) Formation and Evolution of Planetary Systems (Meyer); 2) Detection and Characterization of Extra-solar Planets (Hinz and Burrows); 3) Solar System (Malhotra, Strom, and Kring); 4) Astrochemistry (Ziurys and Apponi); and 5) Evolution of Earth’s Atmosphere and the Detection of Life on Other Planets (Woolf). Laboratory activities including measuring rotational constants of molecules for millimeter wave spectroscopy, the Mirror Lab large telescope making facilities, the Tree Ring Lab, and the Meteorite Lab. Students also had a chance to visit the Sonoran Desert Museum and learn about adaptations of life to extreme desert environments.

The second phase of the Winter School brought the students to Kitt Peak Observatory in southern Arizona where they participated in hands-on use of several research telescopes. The Arizona Radio Observatories 12 meter telescope was used to observe organic molecules found in star-forming regions. The Steward Observatory 2.3 meter Bok telescope was used to take spectra of sun-like stars and solar system planets.

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Data reduction workshops were also held and a 24 inch diameter telescope was available for viewing the night sky with the naked eye. Several discussion sessions were also organized to review topics and controversies in astrobiology led by visiting LAPLACE colleague Tom Olien. We again employed an exit survey designed with assistance from graduate student Erika Offerdahl. The response was generally very positive, but there is always room for improvement! We look forward to continuing to improve these events for future students. We hope to assist the University of Hawaii in planning their next winter school for 2007. LAPLACE is planning our next Winter School for January, 2008. In addition to the learning experiences, valuable outcomes of these activities are the relationships built between students from across the NAI and the broader astrobiology community.

Course on Origins of Stars, Planets, and Life

In spring 2006 Meyer and Woolf offered an interdisciplinary graduate course on the origins of stars, planets, and life. Seven students took the course representing three different departments in the College of Science (Astronomy, Planetary Sciences, and Optical Sciences). This 3-credit graduate elective provided an overview in the formation of stars and planets, and the biochemical origins of life including the evolution biospheres and the detection of life on other planets. Several graded problem sets were assigned throughout the semester. In lieu of a final exam, students wrote 5-10 page research proposals in response to a mock “call for proposals” issued on behalf of an agency interested in research in astrobiology. Proposals included scientific justification, technical feasibility, as well as budgets and schedules. During the last class session, a mock review process was held and anonymous reviews were used to rank order and “fund” a fraction of the proposals. Based on past experience, several of these will be used in future research fellowship competitions.

Astrobiology Journal Club

Our Astrobiology Journal Club has entered a new phase under the successful leadership of post-doctoral fellow Daniel Apai. Held every week, the event consistently draws 10-15 scholars from Astronomy, Planetary Science, Chemistry, Biochemistry, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Geosciences, Physics, and Optical Sciences. Each week a paper is chosen by student, post-doc, or faculty member and posted to the website . Discussion of the paper is lead by a different speaker each week. Once per month, LAPLACE hosts a luncheon with a guest speaker or discussion leader which draws 20-30 people or more during the weekly Journal Club. We have had several keynote speakers including Steve Mojzsis, University of Colorado, Boulder, Anatoly Pavlov, Director of Russian Astrobiology Center (RAC), Scott Kenyon (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), Juan Perez Mercader, Director, Center for Astrobiology (CAB), UA Regents Professor Roger Angel, Steward Observatory Mirror Lab Director. This event has been a key component of our success in establishing a local astrobiology community in Tucson.

LAPLACE has joined with the College of Science at the University of Arizona to present sets of talks on issues of public interest. The first 7 lectures were about evolution, and overflowed its original auditorium, typically ending with over 600 attendees per talk. In the fall this identical lecture series will be given in Phoenix. Also this fall a lecture series on global climate change will be given. Also the Templeton lectures on Astrobiology and the Sacred were given this spring. These included 10 science talks including 2 from LAPLACE faculty. In connection with both of these lecture series, our EPO group taught courses for middle school and high school teachers.