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2013 Annual Science Report

Reporting  |  SEP 2012 – AUG 2013

Edward Goolish
NAI Acting Director: Edward Goolish
Letter from the Director: 2013 NAI Annual Science Report

Kepler, Mars Science Laboratory, MAVEN – these, and many other space missions, exemplify the integrative role that astrobiology plays in NASA’s science program. It has been my great privilege to serve as acting director of the NAI this past year, and see from this perspective the passion and energy that continue to grow within the astrobiology community. I’ve experienced this excitement in the online discussions of our Workshops Without Walls, in the presentations of our Astrobiology Postdoctoral Fellow Alumni and, perhaps most strikingly, in the enthusiasm of the Astrobiology Graduate Conference organizers. Through all of these activities, and many more, it is clear that the unifying concepts of astrobiology have captured the interest of, and influenced the work of, researchers across the breadth of the natural sciences and beyond. The research accomplishments of the NAI’s members for this past year are detailed in the Institute’s 2013 Annual Science Report. They reflect the results of more than 600 peer-reviewed publications – 60 in Nature, Science and PNAS. I invite you to read through this year’s report – browsing by NAI Team, Astrobiology Roadmap Objective – or by using the search function. You will find the NAI researchers to be asking exciting questions in astrobiology, and working across teams and disciplines to uncover the answers.

The NAI is about connecting its members and the larger astrobiology community – researchers separated by geography by discipline, or both – to facilitate an interdisciplinary approach to scientific exploration and discovery. Towards this goal, the NAI continues to sponsor many real-time, online, events to better integrate its membership — together with the broader science community. During this past year, these included multiple seminar series, Workshops Without Walls (WWW), and Focus Group meetings among many others. I would like to highlight just one of these here, a WWW entitled ‘‘Stellar Stoichiometry,’’ hosted by the NAI ASU team in April 2013. This virtual workshop brought together 100 participants working in this field to better understand the role of stellar elemental abundances in planet formation and habitability. With the number of known exoplanets increasing into the thousands, the astrobiology community would like to know which star systems to focus on, and how planetary habitability might be related to stellar composition. The interactivity of this workshop was greatly enhanced by extensive use of real-time, online discussion, lightning talks, a virtual poster session, and the use of YouTube videos to communicate the scientific rationale for the workshop. The organizers, in the spirit of the NAI, have published a summary of their experience together with recommended best practices (Astrobiology; 14:271-276.), and I encourage all those considering remote workshops to read this article. Other successful WWW’s this past year included The Hadean Earth (Andy Czaja, Martin Van Kranendonk, Nicolle Zellner, May 2013), and The Present Day Habitability of Mars (David Paige, UCLA, February 2013).

Support for students and early-career astrobiologists continues to be a priority for the NAI. The highlight of the year in this area was AbGradCon 2013 which was held at McGill University in Montreal during June of 2013. This year, there were 74 attendees from more than 40 institutions including representatives from Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Italy, and Spain – and both the presentations and an undergraduate poster competition were streamed live using the NAI’s collaborative tools. Other significant events included; The Josep Comas i Solà International Astrobiology Summer School (Santander, Spain), on the topic of Biosignatures: The Fingerprints of Life, the Astrobiology Grand Tour, and the Hawaii/Nordic school – Water and the Evolution of Life in the Universe. Nine “Lewis and Clark Field Scholars in Astrobiology” were also selected for support to conduct field-work in Iceland, Sweden, England, Australia, Italy, and the Philippines – and five Faculty Fellows were named through the Astrobiology Minority Institution Research Support (MIRS) program working on projects from the origins of life to modeling the shockwaves involved in disk formation. The objective of the MIRS program is for faculty fellows to use their NASA research experience to strengthen opportunities for their students and recruit them into a career related to astrobiology.

The Astrobiology element of the NASA Postdoctoral Program achieved a new milestone this past year, with 18 Fellows on tenure across the astrobiology community. Noteworthy this year is that two advisors are themselves former Fellows, which speaks to the success of the program and the maturity of the field. In the past year Eric Boyd, Billy Brazelton, Jen Glass, Sara Walker, Aaron Goldman, and Paula Welander have all begun tenure track faculty positions, and Alex Pavlov was brought onboard at Goddard Space Flight Center.

The research of the members of the NAI has had a significant impact not only in the area of astrobiology but also throughout the broader science community. These contributions have been recognized externally and, during this past year, have resulted in national and international awards and distinctions. While it is not possible here to identify all of these accolades, a few are noteworthy. Kate Freeman (Professor of Geosciences and Co-PI with the NAI Penn State Team) has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Ariel Anbar has been honored as an ASU President’s Professor as part of the 2013 Faculty Excellence Awards. And finally, Bill Schopf has received the Paleontological Society Medal, the most prestigious honor bestowed by the Paleontological Society. A member of the NAI for over 15 years, Schopf is Professor of Paleobiology in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences at UCLA, and the author of Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth’s Earliest Fossils.

The NAI was also very pleased, this past year, to select Dr. Steven J. Dick as the second Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology in the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. The Chair position is a partnership between the NASA Astrobiology Program and the Kluge Center. Steven is conducting a compelling investigation of the societal impact of the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe—bringing to this research his reputation as the premier historian and scholar in this area.
In 2013, the NAI deepened its investment in the E/PO efforts of its research teams by engaging a professional education evaluator— Dr. Hilarie B. Davis. In developing this effort, we embraced a partnership model in which she has worked closely with the NAI E/PO Leads to develop a standardized, systematic approach to defining and measuring the impact of E/PO projects. This process has, ultimately, empowered the E/PO Leads to expand their knowledge of evaluation practices, and increases their ability to obtain rigorous evidence for the impact their projects are having. We look forward to sharing the results of this study, and how this unique process is expected to increase the impact of NAI’s E/PO efforts.

The NAI also increased its global reach this past year with the addition of three new international partners. The UK Centre for Astrobiology (based at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland) has as its mission to advance our understanding of molecules and life in extreme environments on the Earth and beyond. The Sociedad Mexicana de Astrobiología (SOMA), headquartered at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City, is a non-profit, self-sustaining organization consisting of a multidisciplinary group of academics and students interested in promoting the knowledge and progress of astrobiology in Mexico. And finally, the Helmholtz Alliance: “Planetary Evolution and Life”, based in Berlin, Germany and established in 2008, seeks to understand to the interactions between life and the evolution of terrestrial planets. We are looking forward to increased collaboration with colleagues from all of these organizations.

Lastly, this past year the NAI released its 7th Cooperative Agreement Notice (CAN) – soliciting proposals for team membership within the Institute. This opportunity, like all previous CANs, will challenge the broad science community to ask new questions inspired by more than a decade of interdisciplinary, collaborative research. Astrobiology, though, has accomplished more than facilitating different disciplines to work together. This relatively young field has fundamentally changed how researchers in any single discipline view their own work – making them more aware than ever how their discoveries contribute to the grand questions that humankind has asked for eons. I look forward to this time next year, when new NAI teams have joined the Institute, and this age-old journey for answers continues down newly-discovered paths.

With best wishes,

Ed Goolish
May, 2014