Get involved in astrobiology

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.

Read the full ‘How to become an astrobiologist’ post over at Lewis’ blog.


Astrobiology Internships

The Astrobiology Society of Britain can provide financial support for undergraduate research internships in the UK that fall within the field of astrobiology. Internships can offer undergraduate students valuable research experience while also providing a window into potential career paths.

In the section ‘Where are the astrobiologists’ below we list the current researchers and research groups in the UK who work within the field of astrobiology. Each entry describes a group’s research interests and provides contact details. If you are interested in an astrobiology internship, please first contact a researcher directly. Once a researcher/research group has agreed to host an internship, then contact us to discuss financial support for the position.

Astrobiology research and teaching in the UK

The last time the ASB surveyed the astrobiology research activity in the UK was in 2009 (Dartnell and Burchell, 2009). A decade on, we have now updated this information resource for the community. The map below shows the location of universities nationwide with at least one group conducting research related to astrobiology.

This map highlights the sheer diversity of astrobiology research now active within the UK, both in terms of geographical spread and interdisciplinary research focus. The intention behind this effort was to provide an information resource for the community: to help foster collaborative links between researchers, disseminate the availability of different instrumentation and equipment, and to offer an overview for those scientists and students newly entering astrobiology of who to contact.

This represents all the astrobiology research groups in the UK that we are aware of which replied to our request for a summary on their current activities. There may be more that we’re not aware of – if so, please do get in touch! (lewis@lewisdartnell.com)

The results of the 2009 UK astrobiology survey are archived here.

Where are the astrobiologists?

The current distribution of astrobiology activity in the UK (left) with institutes in London show in the zoomed section (right).

1. University of Aberdeen

The group’s research is directed at studies of organic matter and habitats than can be applied to Mars and other planets. We have expertise in the response of organic matter to meteorite impact, and characterization by Raman spectroscopy and mass spectrometry. Habitats in the deep biosphere are studied in modern and ancient environments including the sub-sea floor and continental red beds to understand the distribution of biomass on Earth and other planets.

Contact: John Parnell j.parnell@abdn.ac.uk


2. University of St. Andrews

I am fascinated by the extent that microbial life has modified the composition and evolution of our atmosphere. I try to understand this using a two-part geochemical toolkit. I build numerical models that make predictions of geochemical signatures that can be transferred into the geological record. I also make geochemical measurements (in soils, sediments, ice cores, and meteorites) to calibrate the models, and constrain the evolution of atmospheric chemistry on Earth and Mars. I also work with astronomers to predict (and ultimately constrain!) signatures seen in exoplanetary atmospheres.

Contact: Mark Claire mc229@st-andrews.ac.uk


3. University of Stirling

The Stirling Planetary Ices Laboratory is a facility that enables us to simulate cold environments across the solar system. Using this facility, we can explore a whole range of physical conditions and processes influencing habitability. Beyond cold environments, we study mineralogical and geochemical clues about past and present environments on Mars and their potential suitability for life. We are involved in ongoing and future international space missions to Mars, asteroids, and other planetary bodies.

Contact: Christian Schroeder christian.schroeder@stir.ac.uk


4. University of Edinburgh

The University of Edinburgh can offer astrobiology placements focused on lab-based and instrument development projects related to habitability and the study of extreme environments on the Earth. Placements would require someone with a biological sciences or instrumentation focussed background. https://www.ph.ed.ac.uk/people/charles-cockell

Contact: Charles Cockell c.s.cockell@ed.ac.uk


5. University of Glasgow

Our goals are to describe the mechanisms and timescales of water and organic molecule cycling between various reservoirs within the protoplanetary disc, and to understand the delivery processes of these compounds to Earth, the Moon and Mars, their longevity and their roles in biotic evolution. We directly addresses the grand challenge of understanding the origin and distribution of life throughout the Solar System and beyond. Specifically we ask:

  1. How and when were volatiles (e.g., water, organic molecules) transferred between reservoirs within the protoplanetary disc, and delivered to Earth, the Moon and Mars?
  2. How and when were these volatiles cycled between planetary reservoirs (atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, crust, mantle)?
  3. Were volatiles sufficiently long lived and present in appropriate environments on Mars to have catalysed biotic evolution and sustained life?

Contact: Martin Lee Martin.Lee@glasgow.ac.uk ; Lydia Hallis Lydia.Hallis@glasgow.ac.uk

The Biomarkers for Environmental and Climate Science (BECS) group uses a multi-disciplinary approach featuring organic geochemistry, metagenomics, advanced environmental statistics, and environmental monitoring to understand life in extreme environments on Earth and responses of organisms to environmental change. We use biosignatures to find past analogues for modern climate change, and there is a lot of overlap with the approaches used in astrobiology

Contact: Jaime Toney Jaime.Toney@glasgow.ac.uk

Research in the Cronin group is exploring how chemistry transitioned to biology by exploring how chemical systems can process information, be digitized, and also explore the emergence of inorganic life forms in the laboratory, hopefully in real-time. We are also exploring how to measure aliveness, and develop a new theory and probabilistic approach to identifying lifeforms. Success on earth in the lab will help us understand how easy or difficult the emergence of life might be and how to develop experiments to explore for new life in the solar system and beyond. www.croninlab.com

Contact: Lee Cronin Lee.Cronin@Glasgow.ac.uk


6. Newcastle University

Building on a background in the role of microorganisms in driving biogeochemical cycles in cold regions on Earth, we now focus on understanding cold environments elsewhere in the solar system. Ongoing UK Space Agency funded/ExoMars related projects include quantifying the role of wind driven surface processes on controlling fluxes of gases such as methane to the Martian atmosphere (https://research.ncl.ac.uk/regrind/), and the controls on organic molecule preservation on the Martian surface (https://research.ncl.ac.uk/abrade/). Further current research is focused on understanding the physical and chemical controls on habitability and nutrient cycling under terrestrial and Martian glaciers and ice caps, linked via NERC grant ‘CRUSH2LIFE’ to the ongoing scientific exploration of subglacial lakes in Antarctica.

Key facilities in our group include a low temperature experimental laboratory that includes apparatus to mimic the energy of wind driven sand abrasion on the Martian surface under relevant atmospheric pressures and at temperatures from -80°C to +25°C, and the ongoing development of low temperature/high pressure vessels to mimic subglacial processes This links into existing analytical suites within the Earth, Ocean and Planetary Science Group, including pyrolysis GC-MS, single and triple quad ion trap LC-MS, and GC-PDD for trace gas analysis, alongside culture and molecular based geomicrobiology facilities.

Contact: Jon Telling Jon.Telling@newcastle.ac.uk


7. University of Leeds

There are a number of inter-connected themes that we are engaged with in our group which cascade down from the more general to the more specific. At the more general end, we are looking into generalised models of what constitutes livingness. To be clear, this is not about trying to define life, but to build a holistic framework as to what life does and why it does it. The models are in part philosophical, meta-physical and scientific and incorporate fundamental scientific ideas of the nature of reality, consciousness and time. Underneath this theme we are exploring the emergence of biological functionality; specifically how it is possible to transduce periodic chemical behaviours to a bulk physical change of a cell-like material. Beneath this theme we are also interested to examine how fundamental chemical behaviours (molecular self-assembly, molecular conformational change and diffusion) differ within the hydrogel environment which a cell-like materials possess. Finally, under this themes we are also investigating some key questions of energy transduction within prebiotic chemical systems. Much of our work focuses on the role of phosphorus as a chemical means of transferring energy and combines laboratory simulations and modelling alongside field work. Our work is highly collaborative and cross-disciplinary incorporating studies in meteoritics, corrosion electrochemistry, systems chemistry, bioenergetics, membrane science, computational modelling, fundamental physics, philosophy and high-energy geochemistry.

Contact: Terry Kee T.P.Kee@leeds.ac.uk


8. Edge Hill University

The main research topics of the Group for Extreme and Marine Microbiology (GEMM) include:

  • Biodiversity and bioprospection of marine and extreme environments
  • Development of new microbial data analysis tools
  • Geomicrobiology: carbonate biomineral production
  • Astrobiology and Planetary Protection

Contact: André Antunes antunesa@edgehill.ac.uk

Marta Simões’ microbiology research is within mycology, and specifically filamentous fungi. She focuses on filamentous fungal ecology and biodiversity in uncommon and/or extreme environments (e.g.: salt marshes, peatlands, bogs, brine springs, and salterns), bioprospection and application of filamentous fungi for the production of secondary metabolites with biotechnological relevance, mycogenic synthesis of silver nanoparticles; and, fungal survival and adaptation to extreme conditions linked to astrobiology and climate change.

Contact: Marta Simoes Simoesm@edgehill.ac.uk


9. University of Nottingham

Prof. Szewczyk is interested in understanding what regulates the genomic response to spaceflight as well as in sending life beyond the Van Allen belts.

Contact: Nathaniel Szewczyk Nathaniel.Szewczyk@nottingham.ac.uk


10. University of Leicester

The Planetary Materials Research group is involved in: Mars crustal evolution and mineralogy, Martian meteorites, Mars Science Laboratory Participating Scientist, ExoMars, space instrumentation, HiRISE, CaSSIS, PanCam Co-I’s; early Solar System processes – Stardust, Hayabusa, Chondrites. We use a range of SEM, TEM, synchrotron techniques, to study planetary materials. https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/physics/people/johnbridges

Contact: John Bridges jcb36@leicester.ac.uk


11. University of Warwick

The Astrophysics Group at Warwick has an extensive programme in exoplanets really ranging from gas and dust disk modelling and observations, discovery and characterisation (bulk and atmospheric properties), planetary dynamics and systems around evolved stars. Group members make extensive use of both ground and space based facilities. In the last few years the group has expanded to 12 faculty and permanent research staff and contains the Science Office for the ESA PLATO mission.

Contact: Don Pollacco D.Pollacco@warwick.ac.uk


12. University of Cambridge

Our group studies the interior-exterior interactions of planetary processes, from how volcanism influences atmospheres, to how continent formation affects biogeochemical cycles. On Earth, this provides constraints on our planet’s evolution, and for exoplanets informs our models of their habitability and geological processes.

Contact: Oliver Shorttle shorttle@ast.cam.ac.uk


13. Cranfield University

The Astrobiology and Space Biotechnology group at Cranfield is involved in the development of space relevant technology and instrumentation, especially within areas relevant to astrobiology and biosciences. Our work has included developing a multiplexed immunoassay chip for detecting biomarkers on Mars, and more recently exploiting CubeSat spacecraft as platforms to perform microgravity and space radiation bioscience experiments or for early in situ demonstrations of ISRU (in-situ resource utilisation) on Near Earth Asteroids.

Contact: David Cullen d.cullen@cranfield.ac.uk


14. Open University

The Open University can offer astrobiology projects working in the areas of microbiology and environmental simulation. We have several active research activities using state-of-the-art environmental simulation chambers to simulate conditions on Mars, deep space and icy moon conditions. We are particularly interested in how microorganisms survive under extreme conditions and the biosignatures that they could produce as evidence of life. We can offer internship projects ranging from the operation of these chambers to astrobiological microbiology experiments.

Contact for simulation chamber related projects: Manish Patel manish.patel@open.ac.uk
Contact for microbiology based projects: Karen Olsson-Francis karen.olsson-francis@open.ac.uk


15. University of Oxford

My research interests are modeling the atmosphere and climate of extrasolar planets with a particular focus on atmospheric biosignatures in Earth-like planets as well as modeling early Earth conditions.

Contact: Sarah Rugheimer sarah.rugheimer@physics.ox.ac.uk

Our group’s focus is “Chemical Sedimentology” – using aqueous geochemistry and mineralogy to understand how ancient sedimentary rocks record aspects of ancient climates. We conduct experimental work, theoretical work (i.e., models), field work, and analytical work on ancient sedimentary rocks.

Contact: Nicholas Tosca nick.tosca@earth.ox.ac.uk


16. University of Bristol

The Organic Geochemistry Unit in the School of Earth Sciences uses a range of analytical techniques to characterise lipid biomarkers (and other organic signatures) in a range of organisms and environments; this includes ‘extreme’ environments, such as geothermal, acidic, saline and sub-glacial settings. Moreover, our approach directly explores how microorganisms adapt to those settings via changes in their lipid composition. We also examine the geological analogues of these compounds, allowing us to explore the origin and co-evolution of life and the planet.

Contact: Rich Pancost R.D.Pancost@bristol.ac.uk
(but other interested staff include David Naafs and Richard Evershed)

Bristol Glaciology Centre specialises in the biogeochemistry of the cryosphere, and has interests potential for life in the cryospheres of other planetary bodies. Research undertaken in the Dry Valleys and Subglacial Lakes of Antarctica, and in the subglacial environments of the Greenland Ice Sheet, may provide analogues for potential niches in extra-terrestrial cryospheric habitats. Fundamental research on energy sources to subglacial microbes arising from glacier erosion is underway, which may be directly applicable to extra-terrestrial glaciers, ice caps and ice sheets.

Contact: Martyn Tranter M.Tranter@bristol.ac.uk

Patricia Sanchez-Baracaldo’s research group addresses astrobiology questions from the perspective of the genomics of extremophiles, including psychrophilic cyanobacteria and desert microorganisms, and the origins of photosynthesis.

Contact: Patricia Sanchez-Baracaldo P.Sanchez-Baracaldo@bristol.ac.uk


17. Royal Holloway, University of London

Astrobiology research at Royal Holloway focusses on both extrasolar planets and Venus. We study the habitability of exoplanets, and are involved in ESAs new ARIEL mission (launch 2028) that will characterise known exoplanets. We also work on the exploration of Venus, including the EnVision mission to Venus which has been selected by ESA for a three year Phase-A study, to understand why Venus is lifeless and Earth is not. We also use Solar-System planets and exoplanets to better understand Earth’s place in the Universe.

Contact: Dave Waltham D.Waltham@rhul.ac.uk ; Richard Ghail Richard.Ghail@rhul.ac.uk


18. University of Kent

We have three academics at Kent actively working in the field of Astrobiology: Mark Burchell, Mark Price and Penny Wozniakiewicz. Our research interests are complementary and we use Kent’s Impact and analytical facilities (in collaboration with colleagues in Biosciences) to look at the effects of shock on micro-organisms, pre-biotic materials and simple organics and inorganics. We investigate not only how destructive shocks can be (as experienced during an asteroid collision) but also how shock can create more complex materials. This has direct relevance to the search for extant and extinct life on Mars, Enceladus, Europa and beyond.

Contact: Mark Price M.C.Price-21@kent.ac.uk ; Penny Wozniakiewicz P.J.Wozniakiewicz@kent.ac.uk

Where are the molecules of life formed? Are the conditions for such molecular synthesis universal? The astrochemistry and prebiotic chemistry lab studies the formation and stability of molecular compounds formed as part of star and planetary evolution. Through simulation of the physical and chemical conditions in the Interstellar Medium (ISM) and on planetary/lunar atmospheres and surfaces we explore the synthesis of simple prebiotic molecules. Such experiments may both predict and explain observational studies of the ISM and planetary systems using both space and ground based platforms. We also study the stability of prebiotic and biotic (e.g. DNA) molecules in space e.g. under X-ray, UV, cosmic ray and shock wave impact. Such research is providing vital clues as to where life (as we know it) can be common across the Universe and may explain how it developed here on Earth.

Contact: Nigel Mason N.J.Mason@kent.ac.uk


19. UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory

Imaging Group

The Imaging Group at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, which is part of the Department of Space & Climate Physics at UCL is primarily interested in multi-dimensional imaging for scientific applications in climate, planetary and exoplanetary studies, both in developing new instrumentation and the exploitation of existing and future space mission data. In recent years these have included hyperspectral analysis searching for PAH organics in the dust depositions in the Martian SPRC and brines in RSLs in Valles Marineris; development of super-resolution restoration for orbital images of the surface of Mars (including dynamic tracking of RSLs) and artifacts (discovery of Beagle2) and extension of SRR to spectroscopic data of exoplanets and in future imaging exoplanets; for close-range (rover) detection previous studies of PAH organics from UV stimulations of visible fluorescence and in future deep-UV stimulated UV fluorescence and differentiation of the Raman from the fluorescence from the NASA Mars2020 SHERLOC instrument. Detection of isotopologues contain unique signatures relate to “life as we understand it” and research is underway in collaboration with the Exoplanet group at UCL Physics & astronomy to develop a novel machine learning method for analysing ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter NOMAD to map these C-based trace gases from solar occultations

Contact: Jan-Peter Muller j.muller@ucl.ac.uk

Planetary Science Group

We work (PI Prof Andrew Coates) on the PanCam instrument on the Rosalind Franklin (ExoMars 2020) rover, due to land on Mars in 2021. The rover will drill up to 2m under the Martian surface to search for signs of past or even present life. PanCam will help set the geological and atmospheric context for the rover mission. The international PanCam team involves co-investigators at UCL-MSSL and other UK institutes. The group are also actively working on Cassini CAPS data from Titan and Enceladus and are leading (Prof Geraint Jones) the selected Comet Interceptor F-mission study with ESA.

Contact: Andrew Coates a.coates@ucl.ac.uk ; Geraint Jones g.h.jones@ucl.ac.uk


20. UCL

My astrobiology research group focuses on four themes:

  • Search for a record of biosignatures from microbial life on ancient planetary surfaces and in particular on the early Earth and Mars.
  • Understand the non-biological and pre-biotic pathways of biologically-important elements in mineral assemblages with organic matter in rocks from the mantle and hydrothermal vents.
  • Unravel the details of the co-evolution of microbial life and multicellular organisms on the early Earth along with changing atmospheric and oceanic oxidation states.
  • Understand the taphonomic preservation processes of microfossils in chemical sedimentary rocks and the origin of embryonic development and sexual reproduction.

Contact: Dominic Papineau d.papineau@ucl.ac.uk

My group investigates the prebiotic chemistry driven in alkaline hydrothermal vents on the seafloor, and thus their potential as the site for the origin of life on Earth. Such proton gradients across membranes can theoretically drive CO2 reduction. We use a combination of experimental reactors and theoretical modelling. We also work on evolutionary biochemistry and bioenergetics, and specifically the process of chemiosmosis, through which cells generate energy in the form of ATP by way of proton gradients across membranes.

Contact: Nick Lane nick.lane@ucl.ac.uk

The exoplanet characterisation group at UCL works on the observation, analysis and interpretation of spectroscopic data to characterise the atmospheres of exoplanets. We have opened the UCL Centre for Space Exoplanet Data based at the STFC Harwell campus (Oxfordshire) focusing on big-data and machine learning approaches to exoplanet characterisation. We lead two space mission concepts for exoplanet spectroscopy, the ARIEL and Twinkle space missions. The ARIEL (Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey) space telescope is the ESA-M4 mission, selected for its Phase B study in early 2018. ARIEL is expected to be launched in 2028. The Twinkle mission is a smaller, low-cost commercial mission concept to be launched in 3 – 4 years.
http://www.twinkle-spacemission.co.uk
https://ariel-spacemission.eu

Contact: Giovanna Tinetti g.tinetti@ucl.ac.uk ; Ingo Waldmann ingo.waldmann.09@ucl.ac.uk


21. Birkbeck, University of London

Astrobiology at Birkbeck involves three main areas. Louisa Preston l.preston@bbk.ac.uk combines experimental simulations, fieldwork, and spectroscopic analyses – especially FTIR spectroscopy – to create a synthesis of geological and biological methods to enable biosignature detection on Earth, Mars and Europa. Ramy El-Maarry m.elmaarry@bbk.ac.uk assesses life-forms in diverse hydrothermal systems to gain more knowledge about the habitability of similar systems in ancient Mars. In particular, acid-sulfate systems can at times host various lifeforms, but can also be sometimes almost inhospitable. Ian Crawford i.crawford@bbk.ac.uk has Interests in lunar astrobiology, in particular the extent to which the lunar geological record may inform our understanding of the habitability of the early Earth. Recent work has extended this to consider whether or not the Moon itself might have had a window of habitability during the peak of mare basalt volcanism.


22. University of Westminster

The astrobiology research group focuses on extremophile bacteria that could survive the harsh environment of the martian near-subsurface, and what biosignatures of them may be detectable with instruments on exploration rovers. We focus on spectroscopic analyses, such as Raman spectroscopy, and how well these signs of life persist in the radiation environment created by the unshielded bombardment of cosmic rays.

Contact: Lewis Dartnell lewis@lewisdartnell.com


23. Imperial College London

The organic geochemistry group is involved in a wide range of research activities including astrobiology, space missions, meteorites, forensic science, and Earth systems. We specialise in the analysis and interpretation of organic molecules and their stable isotopic compositions relevant to prebiotic chemistry in meteorites, through the many reservoirs of organic molecular fossils on Earth, and the search for evidence of past or present life on Mars.

Contact: Mark Sephton m.a.sephton@imperial.ac.uk


24. Natural History Museum

The Planetary Group at the Museum is lead by Sara Russell, Peter Grindrod, and Paul Schofield. We explore the origins and evolution of the solar system, especially the Moon, Mars, asteroids and comets. We use meteorites as tools to understand the solar system and remote sensing data to study the mineralogy and surface processes of planetary bodies such as Mars. We curate the extensive national meteorite collection which includes a significant number of falls (Principal Curator: Caroline Smith). We are involved in space missions such as NASA’s OSIRIS-REx and ESA’s ExoMars, and planning for a Mars Sample Return mission. Our expertise includes carbonaceous chondrites, lunar meteorites, sample curation, planetary remote sensing, and Mars surface processes.

Our facilities include:
X-ray diffraction, scanning electron microscopy, electron probe microanalysis, X-ray computed tomography, laser ablation and solution-based ICP-MS, and planetary GIS software and facilities.

You can follow our work and find contact information at http://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/departments-and-staff/earth-sciences/mineral-and-planetary-sciences.html, and on Twitter (@NHM_Meteorites)


Online Resources

We have collated online recorded introductory lectures that cover many of the different aspects of astrobiology in the page below:

Members of the ASB committee are often involved in science communication and public outreach events. Links to recordings or summaries of these are regularly posted to our media page.