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What is Astrobiology?
Astrobiology is the study of life in the universe, which includes extraterrestrial life and life on Earth. Through its research, it involves the evolution and the future of life in the universe. For example, oceanographers and marine biologists limit their exploration to this planet; astrobiologists extend their research to other planets, such as Mars and the moon. However, these scientists require extensive knowledge of terrestrial biology to understand and examine the possibilities of life-forms or past life-forms throughout the solar system.
This multidisciplinary field encompasses various sciences, namely physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, ecology, planetary science, geography, astronomy, and geology. Before the formation of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in 1958, scientists were fascinated with studying life beyond our planet. The federal organization has become a world leader in space exploration with a workforce of 18,000 civil servants, plus it supports 312,000 jobs in the United States. This magnitude is fueled by a Fiscal 2021 Budget of $23.2 billion. NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MLS) mission launched the Mars rover, nicknamed Curiosity, on November 26, 1011, which landed on Mars on August 6, 2012.
Joshua Lederberg brought the connection of space exploration and biology to the forefront when he discussed the possibility of extraterrestrial life with his colleagues. At 33 years old, Mr. Lederberg received a Nobel Prize for his discoveries about the genetics of bacteria. At that time, exobiology was the name for astrobiology. In 1960, this scientist wrote an article for the journal Science, touting the merits of exobiology and the need for space travel.
Astrobiology, as mentioned, is a multi-faceted science involving several disciplines. Examples are:
Astronomy – Research that entails extrasolar planet detection- the hypothesis that life could exist on other planets with similar characteristics as Earth.
Biology – One aspect of this science is studying extremophiles or organisms that can survive in extreme conditions. It’s known that organisms thrive on Earth in ice, boiling water, salt crystals, toxic waste, and acid. Could this be true on other planets which have similar conditions?
Astrogeology – Concerned with the geology of the celestial bodies such as the planets and their moons, asteroids, comets, and meteorites.
Physics – Strives to measure quantities in the universe, for example, kinetic energy, velocity, and electrical fields.
Students interested in astrobiology likely had a penchant for science before high school junior or senior year. Some children may have displayed their scientific curiosity in middle school or before that. These people seem to be born with a mind that grasps scientific concepts readily and excels in biology, math, and physics through secondary school. These students might be candidates for pursuing an astrobiology degree.
During the high school years, students learn how to use lab equipment, conduct data analysis, apply statistics for evaluations, construct theories, and generate an inquisitive attitude toward biology. These experiences provide a foundation in the subject that will bode well at the next level in the educational path.
An undergraduate program should be the starting point in your college education. There are many degree options in astrobiology. Students should expect, as referenced above, for programs to have physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy, and related areas. One school, Florida Tech (also aka Florida Institute of Technology), in Melbourne, Florida, offers a Bachelor of Science in Astrobiology at the College of Engineering. Students have access to the largest telescope on the Southeast, the Ortega 0.8 meter, as well as visits to the Southeastern Association for Astronomy (SARA) 0.9-meter telescope. SARA is located in Tuscon, Arizona, at the Kitt Peak National Observatory.
Other benefits at Florida Tech involve using the Space Life Sciences Laboratory at nearby NASA, the Olin Physical Sciences building lab, and the Harris Center for Science and Engineering.
The Florida Tech curriculum consists of General Chemistry, Calculus, Biological Discovery, Biotechnology, Quantum Mechanics, Astrobiology, Microbiology, Biochemistry, and more.
Arizona State University’s (ASU) School of Earth and Space Exploration (ASU) has a Bachelor of Science in Astrobiology and Biogeosciences, also known as the B.S. in Earth and Space Exploration. Some of the courses include Earth and the Solar System, Physics (Mechanics), Physics Lab, Differential Equations, Engineering Systems, and Senior Exploration Project.
First-year ASU students require four years of Math and English, three years of lab science (biology, chemistry), two years of social sciences, and two years of a second language.
Perhaps surprisingly, there are not many choices at the undergraduate level to major in astrobiology. The Eberly College of Science at PennState has a minor in astrobiology with classes in Astrophysics and Astronomy, Biology, Geobiology, General Biochemistry, Molecular Evolution, Microbiology, Organic Geochemistry, and others. These requirements make up 18 to 19 of the total credits.
The Center for Astrobiology at The University of Arizona has a graduate program in astrobiology with coursework in Planetary Astrobiology, Astrochemistry, Origin of the Solar System, and Coevolution of Earth and the Biosphere. The Center uses the Steward Observatory, which conducts research funded by NASA’s Alien Earths project, formerly known as Earths in Other Solar Systems (EOS). A research team has experts in exoplanet detection, planet formation, asteroid analysis, cosmochemistry, and planetary atmospheres.
A graduate certificate is an option; however, applicants need to be enrolled in a graduate program in most instances. Georgia Tech has an Astrobiology Graduate Certificate Program for those already in a master’s degree or B.S./M.S. at Tech. The curriculum studies biology, geosciences, astronomy, chemistry, and physics through a diverse selection of classes. For example, some choices are rocket propulsion, biophysical chemistry, orbital mechanics, isotope geochemistry, aerospace systems, and planets’ physics.
Since astrobiology programs are not plentiful at the graduate level, you could consider a degree in Physics and Astronomy at Clemson University. The Clemson program emphasizes classical and quantum mechanics, electrodynamics, cellular biophysics, atomic physics, and astrophysics. The coursework lacks biology, chemistry, microbiology, and biochemistry, which are essential to astrobiology. Before rejecting this possibility, the school states that the Department of Physics and Astronomy is internationally recognized for experimental and theoretical research in astronomical and biological physics.
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The University of Washington’s Astrobiology Program (UWAB) offers a dual-title doctorate and a graduate certificate in the specialty. The dual-title means you combine your home department’s graduate program with Astrobiology.
These are the current UWAB-affiliated departments that meet this requirement:
- Aeronautics & Astronautics
- Atmospheric Sciences
- Earth & Space Sciences
- Environmental & Forest Sciences
Therefore, a dual-title Ph.D. could be Atmospheric Sciences and Astrobiology or Aeronautics & Astronautics and Astrobiology. This program obligates students to devote considerable time to research and a dissertation project.
The Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences within the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois) offers a master’s degree in this specialty. The curriculum includes a year each of calculus, physics, chemistry, and biology, in addition to thermodynamics and differential equations. All students accepted into the Ph.D. program receive at least five years of tuition support, health insurance, and a stipend. The financial funding is available through research and teaching assistantships and university fellowships.
Examples of courses at Northwestern are Earth Physics, Data Analysis, Microbial Ecology, Aqueous Geochemistry, and Atmospheric Science. The data analysis studies earth science data types, spatial and temporal predictions. Microbial ecology recommends a foundation in biology, chemistry, and earth science before enrolling.
The term astrobiology is a weld of astronomy and biology together. Wouldn’t it be great if there were graduate programs with these two sciences? Unfortunately, there are none. If you take a Master of Science at the University of Maryland, the courses concentrate on astronomical instrumentation, astrophysics, galaxies, and cosmology. No biology. Similarly, a master of science in biology teaches molecular biology, biochemistry, cell biology, marine biology, and related subjects. No astronomy.
Astrobiology at NASA suggests that aspiring astrobiologists pursue a dedicated program, which they admit is sparse. Instead, it advises interested students to earn a degree in biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, or physics. Students who are years away from attending college should check out the NASA Astrobiology Program that has a plethora of educational tools. There are podcasts, videos, classroom materials, and activities to inspire budding astrobiologists. Some of these are directed at educators with how-to videos explaining setup procedures for grades six to eight.
The NASA Program also has links to a host of published scientific articles under the banner of Planetary Science Research Discoveries or PSRD. Examples of these are:
- Active Asteroids
- Meteorite Evidence for a Complicated Protoplanetary Disk
- Lunar Samples
- Scientific Discoveries from the Apollo 11 Mission
- Primeval Water in the Earth
These are technical reports written by scientists; therefore, some material may be challenging to understand. G. Jeffrey Taylor of the Hawai’i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology wrote the report on – Primeval Water in the Earth.
There is a link to the Life in the Pandemic Series, whose videos are on YouTube. There are several videos in the ten to the fifteen-minute range and others at over six hours. The long YouTube videos have the title: The Institutions of Extraterrestrial Liberty. Examples of the shorter video topics are:
- How do I become an Astrobiologist?
- Would contact from alien life change us at all?
- Why are microbes amazing?
- Where does all our oxygen come from?
- Why is everyone excited about Europa?
- Undergraduate and Graduate Astrobiologists
The NASA Astrobiology Early Career Collaboration Award is a research travel support program for undergrads, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and junior scientists. Each year, only six college students receive the award.
NASA internships are available for college students attending full-time accredited programs. Applicants must be enrolled in a degree-granting course of study appropriate to NASA’s long-term professional workforce needs, have a minimum of a 3.0 GPA, and be an American citizen. Applicants will also need to upload a copy of their transcripts and Letters of Recommendation. The latter from professors and other faculty are good sources. Prior experience is not required; however, you should list work or project experience and any related extracurricular activities if applicable.
The internship application should include your skills, like computer languages, public speaking accomplishments, awards, memberships (science-related), and software proficiency. You must also answer the question – Why do you want a NASA Internship? Mentors and coordinators want insight into your passions and desires concerning the field of astrobiology.
Successful interns work in NASA projects in the fall, spring, and summer at any of their locations in the United States. The internship opportunities occur at nineteen NASA facilities in California, Texas, Florida, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Alabama, New York, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Mississippi, and New Mexico. Fall and spring sessions last sixteen weeks, and a summer session lasts eight to ten weeks. NASA also has a year-long session greater than sixteen weeks.
Employment for Astrobiologists
Astrobiology is primarily a research career, either at a learning institution, NASA, or a related agency. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not list the occupation of astrobiologists, and it only refers to the associated fields of physicists and astronomers. For these professions, the BLS has the median annual salary at $128,950 as of 2020 with a doctoral or professional degree. The job growth was projected to be 7% through 2029, with a change in only 1,400 over the ten years of 2019-29. Not a promising number!
The BLS reports on the field of biology (the other component of astro-biology), which has approximately 3 million workers in various sectors. The majority (35%) of biology majors work as Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations. However, the percentage of clinical lab technologists with a bachelor’s degree in this field is only 2%, whereas 9% have a graduate degree.
As of May 202, the BLS reported that the occupation of Biological Scientists has a median wage of $89,910 with 41,680 employees. The highest employment statistics come from the Federal Executive Branch (16,690) and Scientific Research and Development Services (11,520). The preponderance work in California (112,790) with Maryland a distant second with 4,360.
Anyone interested in pursuing astrobiology or any complementary sciences seems that the internship program is the place to start. Preferably while in high school to see if this is where you wish to begin your undergraduate studies. Furthermore, individuals interested in a career in astrobiology should research the job market thoroughly. Despite one’s passion for astronomy and biology, you want to ensure ample job opportunities upon graduation.