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2015 NAI Central Report

Reporting  |  JAN 2015 – DEC 2015

  1. Introduction

    Beyond administering awards to its teams, NAI Central pursues a broad mission to cultivate an active astrobiology community by carrying out, supporting, and catalyzing collaborative, interdisciplinary research; training the next generation of astrobiology researchers; providing scientific and technical leadership on astrobiology investigations for current and future space missions; exploring new approaches to using modern information technology to conduct interdisciplinary and collaborative research among widely-distributed investigators; and supporting learners of all ages by implementing formal, informal, and higher education programming and public outreach.

    In concert with the NAI’s 12 teams, NAI Central plays an active role in engaging the astrobiology community by managing or contributing to a portfolio of programs that offer opportunities for the ongoing exchange of ideas, new interdisciplinary research, collaborative field expeditions, training in astrobiology and public education. The result is an integrated, collaborative community of astrobiologists that advances our understanding of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the Universe.

    Research and the Community

    NAI Director’s Discretionary Fund

    The NAI’s Director’s Discretionary Fund for 2015 gave priority to proposals that integrated the research of, and realized synergies among, the current NAI teams and/or enhanced collaborations with NAI’s international partners. Nine excellent projects totaling $354K were selected from a pool of 21 very competitive submissions, (see The selected proposals melded researchers from across the NAI teams towards critical questions in the origin of life, serpentinizing systems, biosignatures of Mars and other astrobiological targets, and the co-evolution of life and the environment on early Earth.

    Focus Group /Synergy Themes Activities

    In the past year the Thermodynamics, Disequilibrium and Evolution (TDE) Focus Group held successful workshops, and the Virus Focus Group met at Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) 2015 and has plans for future activities. The TDE Focus Group held a workshop in October, 2015 in France, focused on Exoplanetary Atmospheres and Habitability, co-sponsored by the Observatory of Côte d’Azur (OCA) the Université Nice Sophia Antipolis and the NAI. The current chairs, including an early career investigator, have been very effective in recruiting international sponsors. The group also has produced a considerable number of publications

    A transition away from Focus Groups and toward Science Working Groups associated with areas of research synergy across NAI teams began in conjunction with the selection of new teams from its CAN-7 solicitation. This began at the first in-person NAI Executive Council meeting of the year when each PI was asked to make a presentation on their work, proposed or ongoing, and time was set aside for discussion among the PIs both formal and informal to integrate the new teams with the ongoing CAN-6 teams. From this and following meetings, both in-person and virtual, the NAI Executive Council identified several areas of potential synergy between the individual team research programs. The following areas were identified as having the greatest potential for collaboration:

    • Environmental Change and Biosignatures
    • Evolution of Complex Life
    • GeoBioCell Applications
    • Habitable Planetary States, the Evolution of Microbial Life, and their Astronomical Biosignatures
    • Planetary Inventory of Organics and Water, and the Origin of Life
    • Serpentinizing Systems

    These Synergy Themes have subsequently matured further and collaborations among teams in these research areas have been supported by both the 2015 DDF (link) and the NASA Postdoctoral Fellowship selections (link) – providing powerful linkages amongst NAI teams that contribute to research outcomes that would not otherwise have occurred. Several of the Synergy Theme groups are evolving into (or may be augmented by) Science Working Groups (SWGs). SWGs on Biosignatures and Serpentinizing Systems are the best defined at this time, and others are expected to form.

    Workshops and Conferences

    Workshop on the Potential for Finding Life in a Europa Plume

    The Workshop on the Potential for Finding Life in a Europa Plume was held at Ames Research Center on February 18, 2015, hosted by NAI at the request of the Planetary Sciences Division. It was held in conjunction with the Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG) meeting held the following day at ARC to leverage travel costs by attendees. The workshop had 17 presentations, opening with mission concept overviews, followed by scientific topics and questions, and concluding with instrumentation presentations and discussions. Thirteen posters, organized around the same categories, were accessible throughout the workshop and during breaks and a poster session designed to facilitate discussions. More than 160 people attended the workshop including eight members of the press resulting in numerous articles in the press and on public websites. A final workshop report was written by Carl Pilcher and Cynthia Phillips of SETI and provided to the NASA Science Mission Directorate management.


    In support of the Astrobiology Program and the astrobiology community, the NAI staff leads a variety of activities at AbSciCon. The NAI coordinated selections for student attendees at AbSciCon from a budget made available for travel support and twenty five graduate students were selected from a pool of 100 applications. One of the largest events that NAI supports is the Student Poster competition, designed to foster early career networking and provide opportunities for students to meet senior scientists during the judging rounds. In 2015, 98 students entered the poster competition and more than 300 scientists volunteered to be poster judges. NAI Central managed the competition and, together with HQ, presented awards to the first, second and third place poster winners at the end of another NAI-led activity, the Astrobiology Lightning Talks. Lightning talks are five-minute impromptu presentations that allow early career and graduate student researchers opportunities to present their work and encourages sharing of often unpublished, cutting edge/late breaking and innovative ideas.

    Another widely attended session was “Honoring Those We have Lost,” a memorial video tribute produced by NAI Central and shown/webcast during an AbSciCon keynote Memorial Session, provid­ing the community an opportunity to share stories and reflect on the contributions of their colleagues. The 2015 session honored 12 researchers who passed away since the AbSciCon was last held in 2012.

    As has occurred since AbSciCon 2006, the NAI coordinated a meeting of former Minority Institution Research Support (MIRS) Program Fellows, now part of MIAC, the Minority Institution Astrobiology Collaborative, on the afternoon before the start of AbSciCon 2015. Roughly 20 attendees discussed their science, introduced students, and planned for future activities.

    Since 2010, the NAI has coordinated a meeting of astrobiology NPP Fellows at AbSciCon in which the Fellows can meet each other and members of the NPP Program. At AbSciCon 2015 roughly 25 Fellows and Alumni met at lunchtime for an All Hands briefing by Bob Gibson, the director of the NPP Program from Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

    As part of its E/PO activities, NAI organized the 2nd Meeting Mentor Program at AbSciCon 2015. Via partnership with Chicago Public Schools and two local museums, over 30 high school students were recruited and matched with AbSciCon attendees for one half day during the conference. Mentees accompanied their mentors to talks, posters, informal interactions, etc., experiencing a major aspect of scientific culture—a conference—through their eyes.

    Taking advantage of the in-person aspect of AbSciCon, NAI was able to support in-person meetings for individual NAI teams and Focus Groups. Finally, throughout the five-day conference, NAI’s Collaboration Infrastructure and expertise supported the AbSciCon webcast of plenaries and some other sessions. In addition, NAI technical support enabled scientists who were unable to travel to present to social media attendees. Throughout the conference NAI-supported webcasts streamed 102 talks, 5 panels and a press conference. The talks were recorded and are avail­able for viewing on the NAI website at,

    Conference Sessions and Travel Support

    The NAI provided modest support for astrobiology-related workshops and conferences to help offset travel expenses for US-based investigators, with priority given to early career researchers. In the past year the NAI supported the following meetings:

    Gordon Research Conference on Applied & Env. Microbiology
    July 12 – 17, 2015 – Mount Holyoke College
    Organized by J. Colin Murrell and Yuri Gorby
    Gordon Research Conference on Archaea
    July 26 – 31, 2015 – Sunday River, Newry, ME
    Organized by Todd Lowe & Ruth A. Schmitz-Streit
    Metallomics in Medicine Workshop: The Role of Natural Isotopes in the Development of a New Generation of Biomarkers for Biomedicine
    May 18 – May 19, 2015 – Phoenix, Arizona
    Organized by Ariel Anbar
    Extreme Solar Systems III
    November 29 – December 4, 2015 – Hawaii
    Local Organizing Chair: Nader Haghighipour

    Virtual Seminars and Events

    Director’s Seminar Series

    The Director’s Seminar Series features talks from scientists who are invited by the NAI Director to present their research results to the astrobiology community. A primary goal of the seminars is to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration across NAI teams and within the astrobiology community at large. The presentations are streamed live to anyone with internet access, and are recorded for viewing later via the NAI website. This past year was highlighted by presentations that spanned the scope of astrobiology, from the origin of life (The Role of Chance in the Evolution of Early Life, Irene Chen) to the interpretation of Mars mission data (Searching for Life on Mars With PIXL and the Mars 2020 Rover Mission, Abigail Allwood).

    A prime example of new interdisciplinary work stimulated by NAI inter-team collaboration was a Director’s seminar co-presented by NAI PIs Clark Johnson and Loren Williams (Ironing Out Life and the Universe). Loren and his team had been studying the early evolution of the ribosome, but without fully appreciating how the environment of the early Earth may have been different from that of the current Earth. Discussions with other members of the NAI, particularly Bob Hazen, then of the Carnegie Institution of Washington team, led to the recognition that life originated and first proliferated in an anoxic environment where reduced iron was benign, abundant, and soluble. Subsequent experiments showed that Fe(II) can indeed substitute for Mg(II) in RNA folding and catalysis and in protein enzymology involving nucleic acids. In fact, it appears that Fe(II) supercharges RNA. These new results, then, are consistent with a model in which modern biochemical systems retain latent abilities to revert to primordial Fe(II)-based states when exposed to ancient Earth conditions.

    NPP Seminars

    The NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP) Astrobiology seminar series is produced virtually by NAI to provide an opportunity for early career scientists to share their work with one another and with the astrobiology community at large, typically following the conclusion of an NPP fellowship. This past year, five presentations were given to audiences of 30-40 people.

    Astrobiology Seminars

    The NAI supports a number of other virtual seminar series, including the VPL Astrobiology Colloquium Series, the Goddard Space Flight Center Summer Research Associate Seminar Series, and other conferences and workshops. Over the reporting period, 15 VPL Colloquia were produced and three conferences were live webcast and published online: the Workshop on the Potential for Finding Life in a Europa Plume; AbSciCon 2015; and Exoplanetary Atmospheres and Habitability: TDE. Recordings of all of these events are available at

    Annual Science Report

    The NAI collects reports annually from active teams that are published each spring on the NAI web site. Submitted via an internal web application or through traditional document files, the reports are processed by a content management specialist and the finished product is available on the NAI website in the “Our Research” section. The 2015 Annual Science report contains over 120 science reports and lists over 350 publications.

    NAI and NASA Astrobiology Program Websites

    A small hybrid team from NAI and the Astrobiology Program develops and maintains several websites with content from a wealth of NASA and outside contributors. Websites maintained for the NAI include the NAI website, the International Astrobiology Newsletter (IAN) website, and several others. Websites maintained for the NASA Astrobiology Program include the NASA Astrobiology Program website and the FameLab USA site.

    Astrobiology Newsletter

    The Astrobiology Newsletter is a digital newsletter that disseminates important astrobiology news, published research, opportunities for students and young investigators, and upcoming deadlines to the astrobiology community. It is hosted and archived on the website and is distributed via a MailChimp emailer every 6-8 weeks to a list of 4,833 subscribers.

    The goal of the newsletter is to strengthen engagement and stay connected with a widely distributed community. It is a means to drive traffic to astrobiology websites. It also strives to be seen as a trusted and valuable contribution to the astrobiology community. During this reporting period a complete redesign of the newsletter was completed.

    About 85% of the content comes directly from the community through direct emails to the editor and other staff members, and from monthly reports submitted by NAI PI’s. Usage statistics of the email campaigns via MailChimp reports show that the newsletter has higher than average email opens and click rates than industry standards based on Smart Insights – Email Marketing Statistics for 2015. Statistics also show that the newsletter is the third most common way traffic flows to our website.

    International Partners

    International Astrobiology Newsletter

    The International Astrobiology Newsletter (IAN) is a digital newsletter that disseminates information about astrobiology events and opportunities taking place outside the U.S. The newsletter is published quarterly and emailed to a subscription list of 3,848. It is also a website that archives all the newsletters, and has resource links to AB journals, magazines, and other AB organizations.

    Over 95% of the content in IAN comes directly from the community, both through the announcement submission link on the website and direct emails to the editor. IAN also had higher than average email opens and click rates compared with industry statistics. Subscribers from 35 countries open and use IAN, with the top locations representative of active astrobiology communities.

    These results are derived from analysis of the MailChimp (the NAI emailer service) statistics. Reports that monitored the number of emails opened and click rates were used to determine how many subscribers are using IAN. MailChimp location mapping was also used to determine the makeup of the global community. In addition, Smart Insights – Email Marketing Statistics for 2015 was used to compare IAN with current industry standards.

    Japan and Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI):

    The Earth-Life Science Institute and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences have partnered to establish the Japan AstroBiology Consortium (JABC), which became an Affiliate International Partner of the NAI in August of 2015. The mission of the JABC is to develop the field of astrobiology, establish a community of researchers in astrobiology, to support especially young researchers, and to be the hub for international relationships. Other organizations in Japan conducting research related to astrobiology are expected to join the JABC in the future.

    ELSI, based at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, is one of nine World Premier International (WPI) Research Centers created by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The partnership between the NAI and the JABC will focus initially on (1) the exchange of early career scientists and astrobiology summer schools; (2) the organization of Workshops Without Walls; and (3) research collaborations involving members of the NAI and the JABC.

    NAI Executive Council Meetings

    NAI Central plans and supports monthly executive council videocons, interspersed each year with three two-day in-person meetings — usually held at NAI Team sites. These meetings are designed to share current research results among teams, provide scientific input to NAI leadership, provide a forum for engaging the NAI international partners, and conduct other business of the NAI Executive Council. During this reporting period, in-person meetings and lab tours were held at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, at the AbSciCon meeting in Chicago, Illinois which included the International Partners, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, WI.

    Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology

    This past year saw the selection of Nathaniel Comfort as the third Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology in the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. He began his tenure on Oct. 1, 2015, and will be in residence for 12 months. During his time at the Library, Comfort will use the collections to examine the history of the genomic revolution in origin-of-life research. This research addresses one of the central areas of inquiry in the field of astrobiology, which, in addition to the search for life elsewhere in the universe, is deeply interested in how life began and evolved here on earth. Comfort is currently a Professor at the Institute of the History of Medicine at The Johns Hopkins University. The third Blumberg Dialogue on Astrobiology was also held this past year, hosted by the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. This event examined how recent discoveries about the origins and future of life in the cosmos may influence culture, art and the stories we tell about life on earth and beyond.

    Training Astrobiologists and Supporting Early-Career Investigators

    The NASA Astrobiology Postdoctoral Program

    The NASA Astrobiology Program received 41 proposals from the NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP) in March and November of 2015. The six selected postdoctoral fellows and their research topics can be found at During this period, more than 150 astrobiology research-related opportunities for the NASA Astrobiology Program were managed through the NPP. Roughly 25 Astrobiology Program Fellows as well as Fellows working on astrobiology projects at other NASA Centers, and a handful of NPP alumni met with each other, the Astrobiology Program senior personnel, Mary Voytek, Carl Pilcher and Ed Goolish and the NPP management from ORAU at AbSciCon 2015.

    Lewis and Clark

    The Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology is a program supported jointly by the NAI and the American Philosophical Society. Each year graduate students, postdocs, and early-career scientists propose field trips to engage in field studies in astrobiology. NAI Central advertises the opportunity, identifies reviewers, participates in selection and posts reports of the Lewis and Clark Scholars. In 2015 NAI received 32 applications to travel to sites from Iceland to Chile to Idaho. The nine selected proposals and reports can be found at

    Early Career Collaboration Awards

    The Astrobiology Early Career Collaboration Award offers research-related travel support for undergraduate, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and junior scientists. During this reporting period, NAI solicited, evaluated and selected proposals and funded 12 early career astrobiologists to travel to laboratories and research facilities through the Early Career Collaboration Awards. The trips ranged from two early career scientists who engaged in international collaboration through the International Space Science Institute (ISSI), to a number of investigators who traveled to gain expertise in fossil recognition and analysis, to collaboration on JWST transit simulations and observing modes.

    Minority Institutions Research Sabbatical (MIRS)

    MIRS /MIAC Fellows at AbSciCon 2015 MIRS /MIAC Fellows at AbSciCon 2015

    The Astrobiology Program has selected two faculty members from minority serving institutions to conduct research in astrobiology labs as part of the Minority Institution Research Support (MIRS) program during 2015. The selections are: Dr. Yassin Jeilani, Spelman College, Host – Michael P. Callahan, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, “Formamide Chemistry under Drying Lagoon Conditions” and Dr. Erik Melchiorre, Cal State University, San Bernardino, Host – Dr. Timothy Lyons, University of California, Riverside, “Planetary Habitability and the Origins of Life: Evaluating Mineralogical Evidence for Extremophile Habitability Within Serpentinizing Environments of Early Earth”.

    In addition the Minority Institution Astrobiology Collaborative, MIAC, met the day prior to AbSciCon 2015 and a group of MIRS Fellows presented in the AbSciCon session, “The NASA Astrobiology Program – Minority Institution Research Support (MIRS) Program: A Dozen Years of High Return on NASA’s Investment”.

    More information on the MIRS program can be found at”

    Support for SAGANet

    SAGANet is a grassroots, community-led social media network for astrobiology. Over the past year, this online community has grown to over 1500 users, has started an electronic newsletter, a “Talk to an Astrobiologist” monthly seminar and a “Mentor of the Month” acknowledgement of their scientist-mentors. The NAI has provided support for a series of webinars on mentoring tailored for mentors participating in the SAGANet STEM Mentoring Labs (SMeLs) programs. The webinars, which are broadcast and archived, was organized by Ann Rolfe, an internationally recognized expert on mentoring and Board Member of the International Mentoring Association.

    Summer Schools

    Nordic Summer School Nordic Summer School

    100 applications from 34 countries were received for the summer 2015 Nordic-Hawaii Summer School. Thirty-eight participants from 14 countries were selected for the school, “Water, ice and the Origin of Life in the Universe”, held in Iceland from July 1 – 13, 2015. The program included lectures, posters and field excursions. The NAI provided support for 15 students to participate.

    The NAI provided support to the US-based students selected for the Marine Biological Laboratory’s Microbial Diversity Summer Course, which was held in Woods Hole, MA, from July 5th through August 21st, 2015. The NAI provided partial support for the school which included opportunities for the participants to isolate and cultivate characteristic microbial species from various marine, fresh water, animal, and plant habitats and initiate individual research projects with selected isolates.

    Santander (EscuAstrob) Santander (EscuAstrob)

    The 2015 International Summer School in Astrobiology was held at the summer campus of the Spanish National University (UIMP), Santander, Spain from June 29 – July 3, 2015, with the focus, “The Origin of Life: From Monomers to Cells”. The course, which included 40 students, 14 from the US, supported by the NAI, was organized together with the Centro de Astrobiología, NAI’s Spanish international partner, and was co-directed for the NAI by VPL PI Vikki Meadows. Lecturers included George Cody, John Baross, Pierre-Alain Minard and Julie Pereto.


    AbGradCon AbGradCon

    The Astrobiology Graduate Conference (AbGradCon) provides a unique setting for astrobiology graduate students and early career researchers to come together to share their research, collaborate, and network with their peers. The University of Wisconsin team hosted the 2015 Astrobiology Graduate Conference (AbGradCon) in Madison, Wisconsin from July 19-23, including 53 US-based and 2 international graduate students. This was the 13th year of the conference, and the meeting included 37 oral presentations, 20 poster presentations and undergraduate poster competition, an education and outreach workshop, and public outreach events, a pub night with astrobiology trivia and a screening of the film Wall-E. A field trip was scheduled on the last day to the Devil’s Lake State Park near Baraboo, Wisconsin, where recent glaciations have led to well exposed geological evidence of the Precambrian Earth. AbGradCon is organized entirely by graduate students and postdocs; the NASA Astrobiology Institute provides funding for the conference and webcasting support.


    Modeled after AbGradCon, Astrobiology Graduates in Europe (AbGradE) held its second conference on 5 October 2015, directly before the 15th EANA Astrobiology Conference. In this one-day meeting they included aspects of AbGradCon (short presentations) and the Research Focus Group (proposal writing training and mission design activities). The AbGradCon organizers continue to confer with AbGradE in hopes that a joint Astrobiology Graduate event can be organized in the coming years.

    Research Focus Group Workshop

    Each year since 2009, a group of early career scientists have organized a weekend workshop devoted to intensive training for astrobiologists from diverse academic backgrounds to learn techniques in collaborative proposal writing. The central objective of workshop participants is to create an original proposal on a topic relevant to the current state of astrobiology research, which must be presented to a body of their peers. The 2015 Research Focus Group Workshop was held in conjunction with AbGradCon at Kemp Natural Resources Station, Woodruff, WI, from July 17-19, 2015, with 14 US-based participants, funded by NAI. There was difficulty attracting participants early on, partly because this was an AbSciCon year and atypical for AbSciCon it was scheduled only three weeks prior. The organizers opened up applications to a larger community which attracted a number of engineers and those in other STEM fields which had the advantage of expanding the interdisciplinarity.

    Education and Public Outreach and Communications

    Social Media

    As part of the NAI’s communication suite, (which includes the website, newsletters, and emailer) the NAI currently maintains three social media accounts:

    American Geophysical Union (AGU)

    Astrobiology has a strong presence at the annual AGU Fall Meeting held in San Francisco’s Moscone Conference Center. The NAI compiled a schedule of this year’s astrobiology talks and poster sessions for easy downloading and printing. The NAI hosts an information table in the exhibit hall, providing program one-pagers, graphic novels and other resources for researchers, educators and students.

    Additionally, the Impact Analysis Method for improving and documenting impacts of educational and outreach programs that was developed through NAI’s Education and Public Outreach Program was presented at AGU, both in an invited workshop and in a poster session.

    Science Nuggets

    Each week, the Planetary Science Division (PSD) provides one science discovery/story for distribution through upper management and potentially, the Administration, called “Weekly Science Nuggets” selected from highlights submitted by all of the funded programs within PSD. Nuggets help the HQ PSD staff create annual reports and submit input to the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act (GPRA-MA) required by Congress and the Strategic Objective Annual Review (SOAR) required by the Administration. The NAI had been lax in producing these nuggets on a regu­lar basis, but has recently corrected that and is now targeting ~2 nuggets/month sent to HQ.



    The NAI joins in congratulating our members who have been the recipients of the following awards and honors:

    NASA Ames team member Martin Head-Gordon, department of chemistry, University of California, Berkeley, has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences

    Sam Bowring MIT Team member has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences

    Timothy Lyons and Ariel Anbar (UCR team) were named Geochemistry Fellows by the Geochemical Society and the European Association of Geochemistry.

    Chris Reinhard, an institutional leader of the UCR team on the faculty of Georgia Tech, has been named a 2015 Fellow by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

    Derek Briggs, of the NAI MIT team, the G. Evelyn Hutchinson Professor of Geology and Geophysics and curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, has been named the 2015 Paleontological Society Medalist.

    VPL researcher Yuk Yung has been awarded the AAS Division of Planetary Sciences Gerard P. Kuiper prize! This award honors individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the field of planetary science.

    Dr. Geronimo Luis Villanueva of the NASA Goddard team was awarded the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) 2015 Harold C. Urey Prize for exceptional research contributions by an early career scientist.

    Moh El-Naggar(USC) has been appointed the first Robert D. Beyer Early Career Chair in Natural Sciences at USC.

    Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, was announced the recipient of the Wonderfest 2015 Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization, an award recognizing researchers who “have contributed mightily to the public understanding and appreciation of science.”