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2011 Annual Science Report

Reporting  |  SEP 2010 – AUG 2011

Carl Pilcher
NAI Director: Carl Pilcher
Letter from the Director: 2011 NAI Annual Report

We are very pleased to release the NAI 2011 Annual Report covering the period from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011. This year marked an auspicious milestone for the Astrobiology Program as a whole and a number of new initiatives for the NAI. The milestone was the 50th anniversary of the Exobiology/Astrobiology Program, celebrated in Washington, DC at a Symposium featuring talks by James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis, Steve Squyres, and former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin. Archived video recordings of several of the talks and panels are available here.

NAI’s new initiatives for the year (including the last half of 2011) included two new international partnerships, a new organization to administer the Minority Institution Research Support (MIRS) Program, and an exciting new partnership with the Library of Congress. The new international partnerships are with the Instituto de Astrobiologia in Bogotá, Colombia, and with the Nordic Network of Astrobiology Graduate Schools led by Sweden’s Stockholm University. Activities with the new partners included a January 2011 field site reconnaissance trip by several NAI investigators to Colombia; a January 2011 NASA-Nordic Astrobiology Winter School in Hawaii on “Water and the Evolution of Life in the Cosmos” organized through the NAI University of Hawaii team; and a September 2011 Iceland workshop on the “Origin of Earth’s Water.”

NAI announced in January 2011 that the competition to administer the MIRS Program was won by the United Negro College Fund Special Programs Corporation (UNCFSP). Born from the long-standing traditions of the United Negro College Fund, UNCFSP is a separate organization with great experience connecting a broad range of minority education communities to opportunities in government and the private sector. We look forward to the MIRS Program continuing its contributions to diversity in the astrobiology community under the leadership of such a strong and experienced partner.

In late 2011, NASA and the Library of Congress announced the establishment of the Baruch S. Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology. Named in honor of the late Nobel Laureate and founding Director of the NAI, the chair will be selected through an international competition organized jointly by the Library and the NASA Astrobiology Program. The chair will conduct research at the intersection of the science of astrobiology and its humanistic aspects, particularly its societal implications, using the vast resources of the Library. The chair will serve in residence at the Library’s Kluge Center in Washington, DC.

During the reporting period, NAI continued to expand opportunities for researchers and others in the astrobiology community to connect across distance. Most notable was the second Workshop Without Walls on “Molecular Paleontology and Resurrection: Rewinding the Tape of Life.” Held November 8-10, 2010, the workshop was organized by scientists from the NAI teams at Georgia Institute of Technology and Montana State University. It featured 29 talks presented from 19 videoconference 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. An article describing the workshop and how it was conducted was published in PLoS Biology.

In addition to Workshops Without Walls, NAI has been providing remote access to in-person astrobiology events. Two notable examples during the reporting period were “Paleobiology During the Genomics Era,” held at the J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego, and “The Ribosome: Structure, Function & Evolution,” held at Georgia Tech. Recordings of both are available on-line.

Two new Astrobiology Focus Groups were also started during the year. The Astrobiology and Society Focus Group is co-chaired by Margaret Race of the SETI Institute and Kathryn Denning of York University in Toronto, Canada. Its work will complement that of the Blumberg Astrobiology Chair. The Thermodynamics, Disequilibrium and Evolution Focus Group is c-chaired by Javier Martin-Torres of NAI’s Spanish partner, the Centro de Astrobiología, Mike Russell of JPL, and Eugenio Simoncini of the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany. This group is focused on bridging the gap between the theoretical and experimental aspects of origin of life research and planning of future space missions.

In Education and Public Outreach, NAI Central contributed to the Year of the Solar System by organizing From Earth to the Solar System, a collection of high resolution images that showcase the discoveries and excitement of planetary exploration, with a focus on the origin and evolution of the Solar system and the search for life elsewhere. The images are selected and provided in a format that enables any group, anywhere in the world, to mount a public exhibition celebrating this period of discovery. As of the date of this letter, 67 exhibits had been mounted in the US and 18 other countries around the world.

Unfortunately, we lost several members of our community during and after the period discussed here. Three were particularly prominent for the impact they had on the field of astrobiology. Baruch S. “Barry” Blumberg, Nobel Laureate and founding Director of the NAI, passed away suddenly in April 2011 at age 85 during a meeting at Ames Research Center. The NAI Central staff, many of whom worked with Barry during his tenure as Director, posted remembrances on-line.

Ron Greeley, Regents Professor of planetary geology at Arizona State University and former Astrobiology Focus Group chair, passed away unexpectedly on Oct. 27, 2011 in Tempe. He was 72.

“Lynn Margulis“, a long-time member of the astrobiology community and developer of the theory of endosymbiosis, which accounts for the origins of chloroplasts and mitochondria, left us on Nov. 22, 2011. She was 73. They are all sorely missed.

Here are a few other highlights of the year:

Six new NAI Postdoctoral Fellows were selected during the reporting year (see the November 30, 2010 and March 23, 2011 Newsletters). During summer 2011, a record twelve 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 twelve traveled to Chile’s Atacama desert to study life and habitability in Earth’s driest region; another traveled to South African mines to study carbon cycling in the deep crustal biosphere; and yet another cruised to the Juan de Fuca Ridge to study microbes in subseafloor basaltic crust.

Three minority institution faculty members were chosen for sabbaticals in the NAI Minority Institution Research Support (MIRS) Program. Dr. Genet Duke from Northeastern Illinois University worked with John Valley at the University of Wisconsin studying the source of CO2 in Archean carbonatites, rare igneous rocks derived from the convecting mantle. Dr. Yousef Hijji of Morgan State University worked with Paul Mahaffey of the Goddard Space Flight Center measuring the solubility of nitriles in methane and ethane as an analog to Titan’s lakes. And Dr. Mamta Rawat of California State University Fresno worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab with Kasthuri “Venkat” Venkateswaran assessing the role of a novel bacterial thiol, bacillithiol, in the ability of Bacilli to resist extreme heat, UV exposure, gamma radiation and peroxide in the Martian and space environments.

The Josep Comas i Solà International Astrobiology Summer School, held annually in Santander, Spain, has become a tradition in the astrobiology community. The 2011 program marked the school’s ninth year, and was devoted to studying Mars as a habitable planet. About 40 students participated, most from the US and Europe, but including four from Canada, supported by the Canadian Astrobiology Training Program (CATP) and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), and one from Chile, supported by the Astrobiology Society.

The eighth annual Astrobiology Graduate Conference was held at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman, MT from June 5-8, 2011. AbGradCon is unique in that it is organized by graduate students and postdocs from across the sub-disciplines of astrobiology. This year’s conference organization required two years of collaboration between students in Colorado and Montana, with great results.

Honors and awards received by NAI researchers in the reporting period included Jim Lake of UCLA receiving the prestigious 2011 Darwin-Wallace Medal from the Linnean Society of London. The Society first awarded the Darwin-Wallace Medal in 1908, then again in 1958 and in 2008, to commemorate the 50th, 100th and 150th anniversaries of the reading of a joint paper by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, “On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection,” which was published by the Linnean Society. Recognizing the continuing importance of evolutionary biology research, in 2010 the Society began awarding the Darwin-Wallace Medal annually.

Other awards included Bruce Runnegar (UCLA) receiving the Lapworth Medal from the Paleontological Association; David Des Marais (NASA Ames) being elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology; Bruce Watson (RPI) receiving the Murchison Medal from the Geological Society of London; Tim Minton (Montana State University) being named a Fellow of the American Chemical Society; Jeff Cuzzi winning the Kuiper Prize of the Division for Planetary Science of the American Astronomical Association; and Jeff Taylor (University of Hawaii) winning the Shoemaker Medal presented by the NASA Lunar Science Institute.

I 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
February 2012