How to become an astrobiologist
Astrobiologist and ASB Secretary Lewis Dartnell explains…
I often get emailed by people wanting to know how they can get involved in astrobiology – what A-levels or university degree they should pick to become an astrobiologist, or just how they can find out more about what’s happening right now in the field. So I thought it would be useful to compile my various responses into a single post here.
The encouraging reality is that you can get into astrobiology from pretty much any scientific background you like. I did a first degree in biology, but I have astrobiology friends who have come from physics, astronomy, chemistry, or geology. Astrobiology is a very ‘interdisciplinary’ field and sits as the Venn diagram overlap in the middle of many different kinds of science, and this breadth and diversity is exactly what makes astrobiology so exciting.
Astrobiology research and teaching in the UK
In order to assess the current extent of astrobiology activity in the UK, and to provide a comprehensive source of information to help people get involved in astrobiology, the Astrobiology Society of Britain has conducted a nationwide survey. This survey looked at both academic research and teaching in astrobiology now being conducted in the UK.
Between May 2007 and October 2008 a large number of questionnaires were distributed to the entire membership list of the ASB, the UK Planetary Forum, and the AstroSurf network. The survey was also forwarded to UK authors of papers published in the International Journal of Astrobiology and Astrobiology journal over the previous two years, and to those with oral or poster presentations at several domestic and international astrobiology meetings (including EANA 2006, AbSciCon 2006, Bioastronomy 2007). Furthermore, Astrobiology journal kindly circulated the survey to its entire UK distribution list in September 2007. The original questionnaire is still available for reference from the ASB website here.
A total of 41 questionnaire were returned. Six of these questionnaires reported that, to the knowledge of the respondent, no astrobiology research or teaching was conducted at that institution. Complete details of this nationwide astrobiology survey and the full set of results have been published in Astrobiology journal:
For more information on astrobiology in the UK, please refer to this paper or contact the author at lewis(at)lewisdartnell.com.
Great efforts were made to ensure that this survey provides as comprehensive a snapshot as possible. However, if your research group or teaching course has been missed, please contact lewis(at)lewisdartnell.com.
Where are the astrobiologists?
The map on this page shows the current distribution of astrobiology activity in the UK, colour-coded for research, teaching, or both.
The survey found 33 different research groups investigating various elements of astrobiology. Collectively, this research reaches right across the very broad range of disciplines encompassed by astrobiology. UK groups are involved in topics including:
- astrochemistry and the production of organic molecules in outer space
- meteorites and the role that impacts play in the habitability of worlds
- understanding the chemical origins of life on Earth, and what are the earliest signs of life on our own planet
- understanding what the ancient environment of planet Earth was like, and how it has changed over time
- studying the hardy organisms that can survive extreme environments on Earth (‘extremophiles’) and whether they could survive on places like Mars
- designing and building instruments able to detect signs of life (‘biosignatures’) on the other planets and moons in our solar system
- discovering and characterising planets orbiting other stars in the galaxy (‘exoplanets’), and how to detect signs of life in their atmospheres
A table containing the complete list of all astrobiology groups responding to this survey is provided in the paper reporting the survey results (reference above). If you are interested in getting involved in astrobiology research, perhaps as a Ph.D. student or post-doc, take a look at this research table for groups that involve your interests or area of expertise.
Many of these astrobiology centres in the UK also offer taught courses in the subject. The ASB survey found 15 different astrobiology courses. All of these are, however, single modules within undergraduate degree programmes or informal courses offered to undergraduates/postgraduates. To take a formal course in astrobiology you would still need to apply and be accepted to enroll on a university degree programme in a science subject such as biology, biochemistry, geology, or physics and astronomy. The Open University offers a module called ‘An Introduction to Astrobiology’ (module S283, Part 2), which may be taken as part of a distance learning course.
A complete list of these astrobiology courses is provided in the paper reporting the survey results (reference above). The university running the course, course title, and annual number of students are all given.
Recordings of online introductory lectures in the basics of astrobiology can be found here.
Since running this survey and publishing the results, we have become aware of other research groups and courses on astrobiology within the UK. Here are the details:
Research groups: University of Bath, Centre for Extremophile Research; High Altitude Bioprospector consortium
Taught courses: University of Central Lancashire. University Certificate in Astrobiology Course – VSABIO501