Notice: This is an archived and unmaintained page. For current information, please browse

2012 Annual Science Report

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Reporting  |  SEP 2011 – AUG 2012

Executive Summary

Our scientists are members of the New York Center for Astrobiology (NYCA;, based at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in partnership with the University at Albany, Syracuse University, the University of Arizona, and Albion College. Our team joined the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) in Spring 2009, following the selection of our proposal “Setting the stage for life: From interstellar clouds to early Earth and Mars”. Our research addresses several goals of the Astrobiology Roadmap, including Goal 1 (potential for habitable planets), Goal 2 (life in our Solar System), Goal 3 (origins of life), Goal 4 (Earth’s early biosphere and environment), and Goal 7 (signatures of life). It is devoted to elucidating the origins of both life itself and of habitable planetary environments, in our own Solar System and in planet-forming regions around other stars: in short, to develop realistic, widely applicable models for the emergence of molecular complexity leading to life. This is being accomplished through a synergy of interdisciplinary research that unifies astronomical observations, laboratory experiments and computational modeling.

Our team is equally committed to delivering education and training in astrobiology of the highest quality. We are motivated by the national need to attract students to the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines, and by the opportunities that astrobiology provides to accomplish this. We are further motivated by the need to establish formal educational and training programs in astrobiology, to train the next generation of astrobiologists, and in so doing to “support the evolution and transformation of this nascent field” (National Research Council report on the progress of the NAI, 2008). Our goal is thus to establish an effective, integrated program of education, mentoring and training that makes real, quantifiable contributions at all levels, from K–12 through undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral study and research.

A goal of our team that influences is role in both research and education is to promote true and effective communication and collaboration across the scientific disciplines. Our team has developed effective strategies to optimize integration. Several members of its members have a long history of working together in an interdisciplinary setting, and our younger researchers have been inducted into this culture. In-house research discussion meetings (2 per month) involving all members of the NYCA (with videocon links to our partner campuses) are the primary forum by which we promote integration, ensuring that all members are vested in the collective “big picture” goals of the center rather than merely working in isolation within their own subgroups. Our graduate students have also helped to instigate a national journal club for astrobiology spanning multiple NAI teams.

Our team continues to serve the Astrobiology community in numerous ways, a few examples of which are mentioned here. With the Penn State team, we co-hosted the September 2011 meeting of the NAI Executive Committee (EC) at Green Lake, near Syracuse, NY. Doug Whittet chaired a subcommittee of the EC that evaluated a Brazilian proposal for an international partnership with the NAI. Our team organized two sessions at the April 2012 Astrobiology Science Conference in Atlanta: one on “Organic Evolution from the Interstellar Medium to the Early Earth” (co-organized with the Carnegie team), as a follow-up to the 2010 NAI Workshop Without Walls on the same topic; the other was on “The Origin of Biomolecules in Planetary Environments”, a special session highlighting areas of research to which Jim Ferris has made major contributions over a long and distinguished career (see below). Finally, our team’s EPO activities not only serve the local community but also have considerable national prominence, notably the TEDx talk on NASA’s search for life in the galaxy, presented by John Delano in Fall 2011, and our Astrobiology discussions featured on National Public Radio.

New personnel and collaborations
Laurie Leshin was recruited as Dean of Science and Professor of Earth & Environmental Science at RPI from October 2011. Laurie brings not only a wealth of experience and expertise in research, education and science administration, but also, as a member of the Mars Curiosity Science Team, new opportunities in research that synergize perfectly with our ongoing research on Martian analogs. Jon Morse was also recruited as Vice President for Research and Professor of Physics, and his experience and expertise in astrobiology-related areas of astrophysics (origin and distribution of the biogenic chemical elements; detection and characterization of exoplanets) is likewise an invaluable opportunity. These appointments raise the profile of science at RPI and help to further dispel the myth that it is an “engineering school”.

Rensselaer has also committed to hiring a new junior faculty member in Astrobiology. The search began in Summer 2012 and is still in progress at the time of writing. The search committee (chaired by Doug Whittet) is composed entirely of faculty from our NAI-funded team, and its members represent three departments in the School of Science (Physics, Chemistry, Earth & Environmental Science). The appointee will be based in one of these departments (to be determined), and will carry out interdisciplinary research that builds upon and synergizes with existing research in the NYCA.

Jorma Harju (Finnish Centre for Astronomy and University of Helsinki) was formally admitted as a co-investigator of the NYCA in June 2012. Dr Harju has assumed co-adviser responsibility for one of our NAI-supported graduate students, Emily Hardegree-Ullman, hosting an extended visit by her to the University of Helsinki in Summer 2012, and providing access to proprietary data from the Herschel mission and the European Southern Observatory that will form a major component of her thesis.

Charles Poteet (PhD Toledo, 2012) was recruited in summer 2012 as an NAI-funded postdoc in Doug Whittet’s group and is already making exceptional progress, applying his expertise in modeling stellar spectra to data relevant to our project on the interstellar origins of preplanetary matter.

Our research is grouped into eight interconnected projects that form a logical sequence, from interstellar precursors through protoplanetary disks and the solar nebula to the early Earth and Mars. At this time, midway through year 3 of our 5-year funding cycle, our research program has reached maturity and is yielding important results. A few highlights are mentioned here; full details may be found in the individual project reports and publications.

A major focus of our research is the composition of the early Earth’s atmosphere and its significance for organic synthesis. Indeed, it was the realization in the 1980s that the early atmosphere was probably far less reducing than was thought to be the case at the time of the famous Miller-Urey experiment that led to increased interest in interstellar and solar-nebular processes as potentially major sources of organic molecules on the early Earth. Co-investigator John Delano showed several years ago that the chemical memories of the oldest (~3.8 Ga) igneous rocks testify that volcanic emanations at that time were CO2-rich and non-reducing. Now that limit has been pushed back to a much earlier epoch. In a paper published in Nature in December 2011, Trail, Watson and Tailby showed that the oldest zircon crystals bear an analogous chemical memory, showing that the atmosphere was non-reducing as early as ~4.4 Ga ago, i.e., only ~500 Ma after the Moon-forming event. In a press release describing this result, Bruce Watson commented that “We can now say with some certainty that many scientists studying the origins of life on Earth simply picked the wrong atmosphere.” The full press release is available here:

Progress toward understanding the nature and significance of interstellar sources of raw materials needed to make planets and life depends on the availability of state-of-the-art observational facilities for infrared astronomical spectroscopy. To this end, Whittet and colleagues applied in Spring 2012 for observing time on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) to explore at high spectral resolution an important region of the spectrum (5 – 8 microns) that had previously been studied only at low resolution by the Spitzer Space Telescope in solar-mass stars. This spectral region includes signatures of water, ammonia and methane ices and also of formic acid, methanol and other organic molecules. Their relative abundances in environments ranging from prestellar cores to protoplanetary disks will place important new constraints on astrochemical models. This first cycle of observations with SOFIA was oversubscribed by a factor of 5.5 to 1, but our proposal was nevertheless selected with a grade of 4.9/5.0 and received 6.5 hours of observing time. We expect the observations to be scheduled in 2013.

The prebiotic chemistry team led by Jim Ferris has a long history of seminal research on RNA synthesis and polymerization by catalytic processes on montmorillonite clays and other minerals. In recognition of his achievements, our team organized a special session at the 2012 Astrobiology Science Conference, “The Origin of Biomolecules in Planetary Environments”, co-chaired by Doug Whittet and Prakash Joshi, and featuring areas of research to which Jim has made major contributions (see accompanying images). Several of the presenters included former students of Jim’s, as well as distinguished colleagues. At the end of the session, Jim was presented with the 2012 NASA Astrobiology Certificate of Appreciation by Carl Pilcher, the NAI Director.

NASA Astrobiology Certificate of Appreciation, awarded to Jim Ferris at an AbSciCon special session in his honor, April 2012.

Jim Ferris (center), with David Deamer and Linda McGown, on the occasion of the special session in his honor at the Astrobiology Science Conference, Atlanta, April 19, 2012.

Education and Public Outreach
Our education and public outreach program is led by John Delano (U Albany) in close collaboration with Doug Whittet and other members of our team. EPO partners include the Association for the Cooperative Advancement of Science Education (ACASE) in Saratoga Springs, the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp (EMBHSSC), and WAMC Northeast Public Radio (Albany, NY). Other key members of our EPO team include Cynthia Smith (Assistant Dean of Students and EMBHSSC director at RPI) and Paul Mayeur (RPI graduate student specializing in science education).

Our education program includes several distinct but related activities described in detail in the individual project reports. By analogy with our science projects that follow the path of emerging complexity from small molecules in interstellar space to biomolecules on planetary surfaces, our education program aims to promote astrobiology at a progression of levels from K–12 though undergraduate courses to the training of future professionals in the field. Our Summer Science Camp is effectively a recruitment tool to STEM disciplines and an opportunity to enthuse students about astrobiology at an early age. Our Astrobiology Teachers Academy provides a mechanism by which we can reach out to high-school students, effectively recruiting their teachers as our partners, at a time when those students are making decisions about college applications. At the college level, our astrobiology-related courses and undergraduate research opportunities fulfill two distinct roles, providing an introduction to the science of astrobiology for students with general interests, and a springboard for those aiming to proceed to the next level and enter graduate school in this or a related field. Finally, our astrobiology series on the National Public Radio show “The Best of Our Knowledge” is a showcase for the NAI and for all our Center activities, featuring both educational opportunities and ongoing research at a level accessible to the general public. Excellent progress has been made in the last year in all of these activities (please refer to the individual reports).

In conclusion, I highlight two areas of enhancement in the reporting period (as distinct from “merely” a continuation of proven successful activities). These are the Astrobiology Teachers Academy (ATA), which experienced a major increase in both enrollment and effectiveness in 2011/12, and the Astrobiology Short Story Contest, which operated for the first time in spring 2012. These two activities were synergistic, as members of the former did much to promote and advertise the latter and were closely involved in judging the 70 entries received. Of course, the success of the ATA depends ultimately on the sustained efforts of the teachers to take astrobiology to their class rooms, and thus to enrich the learning experience of their students in the STEM disciplines. This goal has been accomplished to a much higher level in 2011/12 than in previous years. The large majority of the Summer 2011 cohort of teachers stayed fully engaged throughout the academic year and returned in Summer 2012 as “teacher mentors” to share their skills and experience with the next cohort. Four of this outstanding group were supported by our NAI team to attend the Astrobiology Science Conference in April, 2012, where they delivered several oral and poster presentations and attended a special session on astrobiolo