Astrobiology Career Path Suggestions
Astrobiology is the study of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This interdisciplinary field requires a comprehensive, integrated understanding of biological, planetary, and cosmic phenomena. Astrobiology encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and on planets around other stars; the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry or life on Solar System bodies like Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Saturn’s moon Titan; and research into the origins, early evolution, and diversity of life on Earth.
The NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) is a virtual organization consisting of fourteen teams seated at universities and institutions across the US which conduct interdisciplinary research in astrobiology. These teams are actively engaged in training graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The typical pathway for a student interested in pursuing astrobiology graduate studies is to specialize in a single scientific discipline, but within the broader intellectual spectrum encompassed by astrobiology as described above. Investigators on NAI teams are typically situated within a single department, such as astronomy, or geology, or biological sciences, and graduate students of those investigators typically take on the same departmental affiliation. Currently, PhD’s are not awarded solely in astrobiology.
It is recommended that prospective students examine the research topics of individual scientists, and focus their graduate school applications toward working with those individuals. Details on current NAI research projects can be found by exploring the Teams and Annual Reports section of NAI’s website. Look specifically for links to each Team’s own website which contains relevant information for prospective graduate students.
In terms of graduate study in astrobiology, certain NAI Team institutions have incorporated special programs into their academic departments and communities. The NAI Team at Penn State University, for example, offers a Dual-title PhD Program in Astrobiology which enables students from several graduate programs to gain the perspectives, techniques, and methodologies of astrobiology, while maintaining a close association with primary program areas of application. NAI’s Team at the University of Washington founded an Astrobiology Program which cooperates with the PhD programs of ten departments within the university. In addition to pursuing a PhD in one of the participating departments, students in the program participate in special seminars and workshops, rotate through research laboratories, and have multidisciplinary dissertation committees. Successful candidates are awarded a Graduate Certificate in Astrobiology. The NAI’s Emeritus Team at the University of Colorado, Boulder also maintains a Graduate Certificate Program in Astrobiology, and the NAI’s Emeritus Team at the University of Arizona will institute a Graduate Minor Concentration in Astrobiology in Fall, 2009.
For undergraduates, several NAI Teams offer summer internship programs either independently (NAI’s NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Carnegie Institution of Washington Teams), or as part of the NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates program (NAI’s Emeritus Team at the SETI Institute). Participants in each of these programs are competitively selected. NAI’s Penn State University Team offers a Minor in Astrobiology to undergraduate students, and NAI’s University of Arizona Emeritus Team will institute an Undergraduate Minor Program in Astrobiology in Fall, 2009.
NAI’s Central Office, located at NASA Ames Research Center, maintains several programs through which graduate students and early career investigators can obtain extra support. The Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology offers awards for field studies in any research area of astrobiology; NAI Research Scholarships support travel between two or more NAI Team or affiliated institutions; and the NASA Postdoctoral Fellowship Program provides full support for research postdoctoral positions affiliated with NAI Teams. NAI also co-sponsors an annual summer school in collaboration with its international partner, the Centro de Astrobiologia in Spain.
It may also be beneficial for those on a career path in astrobiology to sign up for NAI’s newsletter, as well as participate in NAI’s Seminar Series which feature NAI researchers discussing their latest work. The seminars are held remotely via online meetings/videoconferences, or asynchronously via podcasts. In addition to these opportunities, an independent organization hosting regular conferences of graduate students in astrobiology has evolved called AbGradCon. They maintain a web presence on Research Pages at AbGradNet, and on Facebook. Several resources exist to support the next generation of astrobiologists, most notably The Astrobiology Primer, and NASA’s Astrobiology Roadmap.
Finally, NASA offers support for undergraduate and graduate student internships at NASA Centers nationwide through the NASA Undergraduate Student Research Program, and the NASA Graduate Student Research Program, respectively. There is opportunity to work with astrobiologists through both of these programs. Applications are also solicited each year to the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship program. Master- and Doctoral-level candidates in Earth and space sciences or related disciplines from accredited U.S. universities are invited to apply.October 17, 2008