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2012 Annual Science Report

Reporting  |  SEP 2011 – AUG 2012

Carl Pilcher
NAI Director: Carl Pilcher
Letter from the Director: 2012 NAI Annual Report

We are very pleased to publish the NAI 2012 Annual Report covering the period September 1, 2011 to August 31, 2012. A major activity of the year was the 6th competition for new research teams. The five teams selected span a broad range of astrobiology research. They will help ensure close coupling between the NAI and NASA flight programs as well as advance the fundamental science of astrobiology. Three of the teams are closely identified with teams selected in the 4th competition, whose 5-year Cooperative Agreements expired last October, and two of the teams are entirely new to the Institute. The five teams are:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology — Led by Roger Summons, the team focuses on taphonomy—the processes and conditions that preserve biological signatures. The team uses insights from studying Earth’s taphonomy, particularly during the Cryogenian Period (1200 to 600 million years ago), to guide the search for life elsewhere, particularly at Gale Crater on Mars, site of the Curiosity Rover Mission.

University of Illinois — Nigel Goldenfeld leads a team seeking to identify general principles underlying the emergence and evolution of life, a field called “Universal Biology.” The team builds on the revolutionary work of Carl Woese, who sadly passed away while this letter was being composed. Woese showed that prokaryotes—single-cell organisms without nuclei or organelles—actually comprise two distinct domains of life, and that one of these domains—archaea—is more closely related to the third domain eukarya, which include plants and animals, than it is to the other prokaryotic domain, bacteria. The University of Illinois team will probe beyond the last universal common ancestor of life’s three domains, delving into a largely unknown realm where it is thought life was dominated by collective phenomena.

University of Southern California — Jan Amend leads a team focused on the intraterrestrials, the vast community of micro-organisms that make up Earth’s subsurface biosphere. Their investigations begin with drilling in a range of geological environments, and continue with the deployment of new in situ instruments for biomass detection directly into the boreholes. The team will also utilize novel techniques to culture the notoriously unculturable organisms and study the energy flow in these communities.

University of Wisconsin — Led by Clark Johnson, the team seeks to advance our ability to identify and interpret specific biosignatures and the ancient environments in which they formed. The team focuses particularly on how interaction of life’s biomolecules with rock substrates affects our ability to detect biosignatures.

Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) at the University of Washington — Vikki Meadows leads a team continuing its ground-breaking work addressing a single question: “How would we know if an extrasolar planet were able to support life or had life on it already?” VPL examines life’s observable impact on a planetary environment, considering a variety of metabolisms, planetary compositions, and host stars.

The selection of these teams brings the total number of NAI teams to 15, second largest in the Institute’s history. We look forward to bringing the new teams on board and continuing to integrate the Institute to make it “more than the sum of its parts.”

The NAI also expanded its International Partners Program, adding new partnerships with the University of São Paulo (USP) Research Unit in Astrobiology and the Canadian Astrobiology Network. NAP-Astrobio, led by Jorge Ernesto Horvath and Douglas Galante, is a virtual organization whose purpose is to provide a structure for virtual scientific collaboration as well as the organization of meetings, seminars, and schools. The Canadian Astrobiology Network (CAN), led by Neil Banerjee and Lyle Whyte, is an organization of institutions and researchers across Canada who are actively engaged in astrobiological research. The CAN builds on the Canadian Astrobiology Training Program – a six-year ~$1.5M program funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

One aspect of NAI’s charter to foster collaborative, interdisciplinary research in astrobiology is to garner support from other research programs and agencies. A major success was achieved when Penn State, which leads an NAI team, was awarded a major National Science Foundation award to develop a new state-of-the art precision spectrograph for finding habitable planets around cool, nearby M-stars. NAI seed funding to the team supported development research that provided foundation for the successful NSF proposal.

NASA and the Library of Congress selected David Grinspoon to be the first Baruch S. Blumberg NASA-Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology. The chair, selected through an international competition, is named for the late Nobel Laureate and founding director of the NAI, Baruch “Barry” Blumberg. Grinspoon will examine choices facing humanity as we enter the Anthropocene Era, the epoch when human activities are becoming a defining characteristic of the physical nature and functioning of Earth. His research will include studies of the role of planetary exploration in fostering scientific and public understanding of climate change and the power of astrobiology as a model of interdisciplinary research and communication.

As part of its continuing efforts to spread the use of virtual meeting capabilities throughout the community, the NAI published a case study of the 2010 Workshop Without Walls on “Molecular Paleontology and Resurrection: Rewinding the Tape of Life.” The paper appeared in the open access journal PLoS Biology.

The 2012 Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) was held in April in Atlanta, Georgia, hosted by the NAI team at Georgia Tech. A record 900+ papers were presented orally or by poster. A large proportion of the attendees were graduate students and early career investigators, which contributed to a high-energy, dynamic meeting. Video recordings of selected oral presentations are available on the AbSciCon 2012 website.

The FameLab Astrobiology final competition at AbSciCon was a great example of the energy and enthusiasm that young scientists are bringing to the field. FameLab is a science communication competition in which early career scientists have three minutes to convey a science topic or concept to a general audience. No slides or charts allowed, just the power of words, body language, and any prop you can hold in your hands. Several regional heats led to 11 finalists presenting at AbSciCon, with Brendan Mullen, a fifth-year graduate student in Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, winning first place and a trip to the international finals in the UK. But truly, all the contestants and all who saw them present them were winners. Science as a whole will benefit from nurturing the communication skills of younger scientists.

A more somber note at AbSciCon was a memorial session honoring nine members of our community who we lost in the preceding two years: Baruch “Barry” Blumberg, Mike Drake, David Gilichinsky, Ron Greeley, Lynn Margulis, Susan Niebur, Elisabetta “Betty” Pierazzo, James Scott, and Robert Shapiro. We subsequently lost Dick Holland and, most recently, Carl Woese. A video recording of the memorial session, including reflections by John Baross and Lucas Mix, is available on-line.

The 9th Astrobiology Graduate Conference (AbGradCon) was held at Caltech in late August. Organized by and for early career researchers, the conference hosted 91 attendees from over 50 institutions across the US and around the world. In addition, 15 undergraduates and high school students participated in a research poster competition. The presentations were recorded and can be viewed here. The posters are also available here.

The Josep Comas i Solà International Astrobiology Summer School, held annually in Santander, Spain, marked its 10th year with a program focused on Origins of the Building Blocks for Life. About 40 students participated, most from the US and Europe, but including four from Canada, supported by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), two supported by the NAI’s Brazilian partner, and one supported by the Astrobiology Society.

Nine new NAI Postdoctoral Fellows were selected during the reporting year. One of the new postdocs, Arsev Aydinoglu, is a social scientist studying NAI’s current collaborative practices. He will work at NAI Central under the guidance of Ed Goolish and an academic advisor. In addition, 8 young researchers were awarded grants from the Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology, and 2 minority institution faculty members were chosen for sabbaticals in the NAI Minority Institution Research support (MIRS) Program.

Many NAI researchers were recognized with honors and awards during the reporting period. Congratulations to Gerry Joyce (The Scripps Research Institute) and Jim Lake (UCLA) on their induction into the 232nd class of members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Congratulations also to Sue Brantley (Penn State) on her election to the National Academy of Sciences; Dave Des Marais for receiving the 2012 Alfred Treibs Award from the Geochemcial Society for achievements in organic chemistry; Lisa Kaltenegger (Max Planck Institute) for receiving the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize from Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, given to outstanding early career scientists in Germany; and Sara Seager (MIT) for being awarded the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in the Physical Sciences from Tel Aviv University. We also congratulate Sue Brantley, James Farquhar (Univ. Maryland), Lee Kump (Penn State), and Kevin McKeegan (UCLA) on their selection as 2012 Geochemical Fellows by the Geochemical Society and European Association of Geochemistry.

Finally, those of you who have had the fortitude to read down this far probably know that this is the last Annual Report letter I will write as NAI Director. By the time this letter is published, I will have retired from NASA after 25 years of managing science programs at the agency. The past six of those years, directing the NAI, have been by far the most rewarding. I have enjoyed immensely working with our remarkable community. I plan to stay involved in astrobiology, but I know I will miss the day-to-day interactions with so many of you. So, to paraphrase (slightly) Garrison Keillor, “do great work, and keep in touch.”

Best always,

Carl Pilcher
February 2013