3rd STFC-UKSA Postgraduate Summer School in Astrobiology


Three student presentation winners at the 3rd PSSiA, University of Leeds, 11–16th Sept, 2011. L–R: Casey Bryce (University of Edinburgh), Kate Goddard (Imperial College) and Stephanie Lutz (University of Leeds)

The 3rd STFC-UK Space Agency Postgraduate Summer School in Astrobiology took place at the University of Leeds between 11-16th September 2011. Building upon previous, highly successful events at the Open University and University of Kent, the week began with a social mixer on the Sunday evening where our 25 student attendees, from all over the UK, were introduced to the joys of astrobiology by Dr Lewis Dartnell (UCL), as only he can with a marvellously engaging after-dinner talk.

The venue for the week-long science meeting was the superbly refurbished School of Earth & Environment with each of the full days events, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, based around a particular theme of astrobiology. The theme for Monday’s presentations, was The Building Blocks of Life with keynote presentations from Dr Nick Lane (UCL) on the emergence of bioenergetics, Prof. Pierre-Alain Monnard (USD) on self-assembled amphiphilic structures and Dr Zita Martins on analyses of Mars soil analogues. In a format to be repeated on Tuesday and Thursday, the session immediately following lunch allowed student attendees to present a 5 minute cameo PowerPoint talk on an aspect of their research or astrobiological interests. For each of these three student presentation sessions, the assembled student audience had the chance to vote for the presentation in each session which they found to be the most engaging, the three winners ultimately being (l to r in the photograph below) Casey Bryce (University of Edinburgh), Kate Goddard (Imperial College) and Stephanie Lutz (University of Leeds). Late afternoons were reserved for study group activities, a legacy from the University of Kent meeting in 2009 which worked very well last time around. Each student attendee was assigned to one of four groups, each group being subsequently handed a study problem to address over the course of four study group sessions during the week. The four problems chosen were (i) discovering signatures of life in exoplanets: the present and the future; (ii) alkaline hydrothermal vents as a cradle of life. Geological and chemical plausibility; (iii) what is the evidence for an exogenous source of chemicals as being Important to the origins of life on earth? and (iv) critical analysis of the 2011 Felisa Wolfe-Simon Science paper. Can arsenic substitute for phosphorus in DNA? Each group prepared and delivered a 15 minute PowerPoint presentation on their problem on the Friday afternoon which was extremely well received by all.

Tuesday’s theme was based on Astro & Planetary Chemistry with plenary presentations from Profs. Ian Smith (University of Cambridge) took us through some aspects of observations, measurements, and modeling of astrochemical data, Paola Caselli (UOL) then discussed the emergence of astrochemical complexity from diffuse interstellar clouds to protostars, Cecilia Ceccarelli (Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Grenoble) revealed to us how complex organic molecules in space can give rise to both planetary systems and meteorites. This session was then concluded with Prof. John Plane (UOL) taking us through some of the effects of impacts of cosmic dust in planetary atmospheres.

Wednesday was the summer school social day, somewhat of a bus-mans holiday as we decamped to nearby Bradford for the annual British Science Festival. Wednesday was also the host day for specific sub-session on astrobiology which complemented what we had been experiencing at the summer school very nicely. Dinner followed by an evening’s soiree with Sir Rannulph Fiennes rounded of a perfect day.

Thursday’s lecture sessions were centered around geomicrobiology with superb presentations from Prof. Petra Rettberg (Institute of Aerospace Medicine, Cologne) on astrobiological experiments in space and on Earth, Prof. Charles Cockell (University of Edinburgh) on the search for chemolithotrophs on Mars, Prof. Liane G. Benning (UOL) on the Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition (AMASE) and Dr Claire Cousins (UCL-Birkbeck) on the geomicrobiology of analogue environments.

Friday was wrapped up with study group preparations and presentations followed by lunch and hopefully, a determination by all to make the most of their studies and reflect on what was an extremely well-received event.

— Terry Kee, University of Leeds, October 2011