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2010 Annual Science Report

Reporting  |  SEP 2009 – AUG 2010

Carl Pilcher
NAI Director: Carl Pilcher
Letter from the Director: 2010 NAI Annual Report

This year, in conjunction with releasing the 2010 Annual Report, covering the period from July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010, we are rolling out a new Annual Report website. This is part of a larger upgrade to the NAI website that includes new formats and functionality for the Directory and Team pages. In the near future we’ll implement a log-in function that will allow individuals to add content to their directory pages and other parts of the site, and continue to improve formats and functionality throughout the site. Please let us know how you like the changes, and any other changes that you would find helpful. Suggestions can be sent to Shige Abe at NAI Central.

The period reported here was the first full year for the ten teams selected in the Cycle-5 NAI competition. So a major focus continued to be integrating science across the NAI and beyond into the broader astrobiology community. Much of this integration focused on research areas identified in the Strategic Science Initiatives Workshop held in Tempe, Arizona in May 2009 and discussed in my letter introducing the 2009 Annual Report.

For example, one of those areas was the “Production of Volatiles, Organics, and Water and their Delivery to Planets.” The discussions in Tempe, coupled to advances to NAI’s use of information technologies, led to the first “Workshop Without Walls,” organized by George Cody and Doug Whittet, PI’s of the NAI Carnegie Institution of Washington and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute teams, respectively. The Workshop, entitled “The Organic Continuum from the Interstellar Medium to the Earth Earth,” was held March 11-12, 2010, using NAI’s suite of advanced collaborative technologies. The experience was truly global, with over 170 registrants from 21 US States and 16 other countries, including Canada, Mexico, six western European nations, Ukraine, India, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay. A total of 33 scientific talks were presented over two days, with fully interactive Q&A among the participants at eight sites equipped with HD-video/audio, and streaming with real-time question submission through the Adobe Connect web interface.

The success of this Workshop Without Walls led to another that occurred after the period covered by this report, but worth mentioning here since it addressed another of the research areas identified at Tempe, Origins of Life. This Workshop, entitled “Molecular Paleontology and Resurrection: Rewinding the Tape of Life” was held on November 8-10, 2010. Organized by scientists from the NAI teams at Georgia Institute of Technology and Montana State University, the workshop featured 29 talks presented from 19 video conferencing rooms at universities and research centers in the US, plus one in Japan and one in Canada. Talks were recorded and posted online in near real time during the workshop. With 567 registrants from 31 US states and 30 other countries, this second Workshop was more than three times the size of the first. Social media played a large role in publicizing the workshop when news of it “went viral” on popular science blogs such as Pharygula (PZ Meyer’s blog), Panda’s Thumb, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation website. As a result, the workshop drew participation from the public, educators and science writers, as well as astrobiology researchers.

Of course bringing researchers together is an essential part of science integration, but the ultimate goal is new collaborative interdisciplinary research. There were many instances of this as well during the reporting year and since. For example, the NAI teams at Georgia Tech and Montana State University that organized the second Workshop Without Walls, continued to develop their collaborations. Both teams do origin of life research, but from distinctly different perspectives. They cohosted workshops and collaborated on research, outreach, and education activities. Their interactions are helping foster new approaches to studying the origin of life, emphasizing modern tools of biological, biochemical, and bioinformatical analysis.

Other instances of new collaborative interdisciplinary research were conducted by the 2009 NAI Director’s Discretionary Fund (DDF) awardees, who began their work during the reporting year. For example, a new integration of geochemical and genomic knowledge applied to tracing biological evolution through the Archean and Proterozoic was developed by researchers at Arizona State University and the J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego, California. The NAI team at Montana State University and the Icy Worlds team at JPL began a new collaboration studying how mineral catalysis may have led to the development of enzymes. And Jim Lake of UCLA laid the groundwork for a broad new integration of knowledge across the geological and biological domains by organizing a workshop on “Dating Major Events in the Origin of Evolution of Eukaryotes.” Descriptions of other 2009 DDF projects are on the NAI website.

Here are a few other highlights of the year:

Seven new NAI Postdoctoral Fellows were selected during the reporting year (see the August 27, 2009 and March 24, 2010 Newsletters). During summer 2010, seven young researchers were awarded grants from The Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology, in partnership with the American Philosophical Society (see the July 8, 2010 Newsletter). Three of the seven traveled to Western Australia to study Earth’s oldest rocks; another traveled to northwestern Canada to study microbial iron reduction beneath the Robertson glacier.

Two minority institution faculty members were chosen for sabbaticals in the NAI Minority Institution Research Support (MIRS) Program. Dr. Don Benn, from the University of Montana, worked with Martin Lawrence, Montana State University, to examine the interactions between Spindle-shaped Virus (SSV) and the heat shock proteins produced by the hyperthermoacidophile Sulfolobus both in vitro and in vivo using biochemical methods and fluorescent probes. Dr. Tina Salmassi, Cal State University, Los Angeles, worked with Kasthuri Venkateswaran at JPL on isolation of extremophiles from natural samples and spacecraft associated surfaces.

The Josep Comas i Solà International Astrobiology Summer School, held annually in Santander, Spain, has become a tradition in the astrobiology community. The 2010 program marked the school’s eighth year, and was devoted to extrasolar planets and habitability. About 40 students participated, most from the US and Europe, but including two from Canada, supported by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and one from Brazil, supported by Harvard Origins of Life Initiative.

On January 28-29, 2010, the “NASA and the Navajo Nation” project team hosted a large-scale workshop for educators across the Navajo Nation. Over 100 teachers participated, despite the worst snow storm in 25 years, some traveling hours through severe conditions. The guiding philosophy for the project is that by bringing together the cultural and scientific perspectives, a “dual-learning” environment is created in which learners are invited to discover and define the points of conceptual overlap for themselves. The project’s efforts are focused entirely on the benefit to Navajo teachers and students, empowering them to teach both culture and science more effectively.

The honors and awards received by NAI researchers in the reporting period included Jack Szostak’s sharing of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Jack, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, shared the Prize with Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, and Carol W. Greider of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Jack is a principal investigator with NASA’s Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology Program and a member of the NAI. The award was announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on October 5th, and was given to the group for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.

Jonathan Lunine, a member of NAI’s JPL-Titan team and professor in the University of Arizona’s Department of Planetary Sciences was been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Jennifer Eigenbrode (Goddard Space Flight Center) was selected as the recipient of the 2009 IRAD Innovator of the Year award. Her work has added important capabilities to the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which will be included on the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). Dr. Eigenbrode’s work will allow MSL to analyze large carbon molecules if they are discovered on Mars, and could play an important role in determining the potential for past or present life on the Red Planet.

Daniel Glavin (Goddard Space Flight Center) was selected by the international Meteoritical Society as the recipient of the 2010 Nier Prize. The prestigious Nier Prize is awarded to young scientists performing valuable research in fields related to meteoritics and planetary science. Dr. Glavin was presented with the prize for his work on extraterrestrial organic chemistry. By examining carbonaceous meteorites, Glavin and his team have made important contributions toward understanding why life uses only left-handed versions of amino acids.

Tori Hoehler of NAI’s NASA Ames Research Center team had the honor of delivering the Carl Sagan Lecture in December 2009 at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. This lecture is given at the Fall Meeting every year and features a prominent speaker addressing issues in Astrobiology and the development of life on Earth

There is much more I could include in this letter, but I will end it for now and encourage you to explore the annual report and the NAI website for more details and the latest news. We welcome your feedback on how NAI can continue serving the astrobiology community.

Carl Pilcher
September 2011