How To Become An Astrobiologist

By David Krug David Krug is the CEO & President of Bankovia. He's a lifelong expat who has lived in the Philippines, Mexico, Thailand, and Colombia. When he's not reading about cryptocurrencies, he's researching the latest personal finance software. 9 minute read

Astrobiology is the study of life on other planets, but what exactly is it?

Astrobiology is the study of life in the universe, which includes both life on Earth and life elsewhere in the universe. Throughout its research, it touches on both the history and future of life on Earth and beyond. There are two types of astrobiologists: those who focus on Mars and the moon, and those who focus on oceanography and marine biology. These scientists, on the other hand, need in-depth knowledge of terrestrial biology in order to investigate the possibility of alien life or the existence of alien life in the past.

Physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, and astronomy are all included in this interdisciplinary study of the cosmos. It also includes planetary science, geography, and geology. In the years leading up to NASA’s inception in 1958, scientists were enthralled by the prospect of discovering life on planets other than Earth. In the field of space exploration, the federal agency has established itself as a global leader, employing 18,000 civil servants and providing support for 312,000 American jobs. A $23.2 billion budget for fiscal year 2021 is the driving force behind this magnitude. Curiosity, the NASA Mars Science Laboratory (MLS) rover that touched down on Mars on August 6, 2012, was launched by the agency on November 26, 2011.

When discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial life with his colleagues, Joshua Lederberg emphasized the link between space exploration and biology. Mr. Lederberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine at the age of 33 for his work on the genetics of bacteria. Exobiology was the term used at the time to refer to astrobiology. Science published an article by this scientist in 1960, in which he extolled the virtues of exobiology and space exploration.

Many disciplines are involved in astrobiology, which is why it’s so important to study it. As an example,

Astronomy is the study of extrasolar planets and the possibility that life may exist on other planets with similar characteristics to our own.

Biology includes the study of organisms known as extremophiles, or those that can thrive in conditions that would otherwise be lethal to most other forms of life. In the presence of ice, boiling water, salt crystals, toxic waste, and acid on Earth, organisms have been observed to thrive. Perhaps similar conditions on other planets could also lead to this phenomenon.

Concerned with celestial bodies such as planets and moons, asteroid belts, comets, and meteorites, as well as their geological history.

Physics is the study of the universe’s physical quantities, such as kinetic energy, speed, and electric fields.

Education in Astrobiology

The Senior Year of High School

Before their junior or senior year of high school, students interested in astrobiology already had a strong interest in science. Some children’s scientific curiosity may have been evident as early as middle school. These people appear to be born with a mind capable of grasping scientific concepts and excelling in biology, math, and physics in high school.. Astrophysicists may want to consider enrolling in these students.

In high school, students learn how to use lab equipment, analyze data, apply statistics to evaluations, construct theories, and cultivate an interest in biology through these experiences. These learning opportunities lay a solid foundation for the student’s future academic endeavors.

As a Bachelor’s degree,

You should begin your college career with an undergraduate degree. Astrobiology offers a wide range of degree options. Programs should include courses in the physical and natural sciences as well as mathematics, history, and the humanities, to name just a few. An astrobiology degree is available at the College of Engineering and Science at Florida Tech (also referred to as the Florida Institute of Technology). Additionally, students can visit the Southeastern Association for Astronomy’s (SARA) 0.9-meter telescope, which is one of the largest telescopes in the Southeast. The Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tuscon, Arizona, is where SARA is based.

The nearby NASA Space Life Sciences Laboratory, the Olin Physical Sciences building lab, and the Harris Center for Science and Engineering are all available to Florida Tech students as extracurricular extras.

Chemistry, Calculus, Biological Discovery and Biotechnology are just some of the courses offered at Florida Tech. Other courses include astrobiology, microbiology, and biochemistry.

The Bachelor of Science in Astrobiology and Biogeosciences (also known as the B.S. in Earth and Space Exploration) is offered by the School of Earth and Space Exploration (ASU) at Arizona State University (ASU). It includes Earth and the Solar System as well as Physics (Mechanics) as well as the Physics Lab and Differential Equations.

Four years of Math and English, three years of lab science (biology or chemistry), two years of social science and two years of a second language are required for first-year ASU students.

It may come as a surprise to learn that there aren’t many undergraduate options for those interested in pursuing an astrobiology degree. Courses in Astrophysics and Astronomy, Biology, Geobiology, General Biochemistry, Molecular Evolution, Microbiology, Organic Geochemistry and more are available through PennState’s Eberly College of Science as part of the minor in astrobiology. 18 to 19 of the total credits are accounted for by these prerequisites.

The Master’s degree

University of Arizona’s Center for Astrobiology offers an Astrobiology Graduate Program that includes courses in Planetary Astrobiology, Cosmochemistry, Solar System Origins and Earth-Biosphere Coevolution. The Steward Observatory, formerly known as Earths in Other Solar Systems, is used by the Center to conduct research funded by NASA’s Alien Earths project (EOS). An exoplanet detection team includes specialists in planet formation, asteroid analysis, cosmochemistry, and planetary atmospheres, amongst other areas of knowledge and skills.

A graduate certificate is an option, but in most cases, applicants must be enrolled in a graduate program. Those who already have a master’s degree or a B.S./M.S. from Georgia Tech can apply for a certificate in astrobiology. All of these subjects are covered in a variety of ways in the school’s course of study. Consider, for example, rocket propulsion, biophysical chemistry, orbital mechanics, geochemistry of isotopes, and the physics of the planets.

Clemson University offers a degree in physics and astronomy if you’re interested in studying astrobiology at the graduate level. Classical and quantum mechanics, electrodynamics, cell biology, atomic physics, and astrophysics are all part of the Clemson curriculum. Biochemistry, microbiology, and chemistry are all missing from the curriculum, which is a problem for astrobiology students. Despite this, the school’s Department of Physics and Astronomy is proud to say that its work in astronomy and biological physics is well-known on the international stage.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

The Astrobiology Program (UWAB) at the University of Washington offers both a doctorate and a graduate certificate in the field. Your home department’s graduate program is combined with Astrobiology in the dual title.

This list of UWAB-affiliated departments includes those that currently meet this criterion:

  • Aviation and space exploration
  • Astronomy
  • Applied Atmospheric Research
  • Biology
  • Astronomy & Cosmology
  • Science of the Environment and Forestry
  • Microbiology
  • Oceanography

Astrobiology and Atmospheric Sciences or Aeronautics & Astronautics and Astrobiology are examples of dual-title Ph.D.s. Students must devote a significant amount of time to research and writing a dissertation as part of this program.

The Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois) has a master’s degree program in Earth and Planetary Sciences that students can pursue. Calculus, physics, chemistry, and biology are all taught for one year each in the curriculum, as well as thermodynamics and differential equations. Students who are accepted into the Ph.D. program are guaranteed tuition assistance, health insurance, and a stipend for at least five years. Research and teaching assistantships and university fellowships provide financial assistance.

Earth Physics, Data Analysis, Microbial Ecology, Aqueous Geochemistry, and Atmospheric Science are just a few of the many courses offered by Northwestern. Earth science data types, as well as spatial and temporal predictions, are examined in the data analysis. It is suggested that students interested in pursuing an undergraduate degree in microbial ecology have a strong background in biology, chemistry, and astrophysics.

The fields of astronomy and biology have joined to form the umbrella term of astrobiology. No, I don’t think there should be graduate programs in these fields. Only a handful of them are currently available. Astronomical instruments, as well as astrophysics and galaxies are all part of the curriculum for the University of Maryland’s Master of Science in Science program. There is no biology here. An MSc in biology similarly instructs students in molecular, biochemical, cell, marine, and other aspects of the field’s various subfields. There is no astronomy here.

According to NASA, astrophysicists should look into a specific program, which they admit is lacking. Students who want to pursue a career in astronomy should instead pursue a degree in biology or chemistry. Check out NASA’s Astrobiology Program, which provides a wealth of educational resources for students who are years away from college. There are podcasts, videos, classroom materials, and activities for budding astrobiologists to get excited about their work. Some of these are geared toward teachers, with instructional videos for grades six through eight.

PSRD (Planetary Science Research Discoveries) is a collection of scientific articles published by the NASA Program. Some examples include:

  • Asteroids that are currently in motion.
  • Evidence for a Complex Protoplanetary Disk from Meteorites
  • Samples from the Moon
  • The Apollo 11 Mission’s scientific findings
  • Water from the Earth’s primordial depths

Some of the information in these scientific reports may be difficult to comprehend. Primordial Water on Earth was written by G. Jeffrey Taylor of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology.

Videos from the Life in the Pandemic Series are available on YouTube and can be found via the link provided. There are a variety of lengths available, ranging from ten to fifteen minutes to well over six hours. The Institutions of Extraterrestrial Liberty is the title of the lengthy YouTube videos. Shorter video topics include:

  • To become an astrobiologist, what steps must I take first?
  • Whether or not we would be affected by contact with aliens is an open question.
  • What is it about microbes that fascinates us?
  • Who or what provides us with all of the oxygen we breathe?
  • Europa has a lot of people excited, but why?
  • Astrobiologists at all levels of education, from undergraduate to graduate.

For students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior scientists, the NASA Astrobiology Early Career Collaboration Award is a travel grant program. Only six college students are given the honor each year.

Students enrolled in full-time, accredited college programs are eligible for NASA internships. An American citizen and full-time student in a degree-granting field relevant to NASA’s long-term professional workforce needs are required. A minimum grade point average of 3.0 is also required. Transcripts and Letters of Recommendation must also be uploaded by applicants. Good sources for the latter are professors and other academics. Although prior experience isn’t required, it’s a good idea to include any relevant work or school activities.

A strong application for an internship should include information about your knowledge of programming languages, public speaking, awards and memberships in professional societies (especially those related to science). In addition, you’ll need to explain why you’d like to work for NASA as an intern. Mentors and coordinators are eager to learn more about your interests in astrobiology and how they can help you achieve your goals.

In the fall, spring, and summer, successful interns work on NASA projects at any of their locations across the United States. At nineteen NASA locations across the United States, students can apply for internships. Session lengths for fall, spring and summer range from eight to ten weeks. The NASA yearlong session lasts for more than 16 weeks.

Astrobiologists are in high demand.

There is a strong emphasis on research in astrobiology, either at a university, NASA, or a similar agency. Astrobiologists aren’t included in the BLS’s classification of occupations, which only includes physicists and astronomers. With a doctoral or professional degree, the BLS expects the median annual salary to be $128,950 in 2020. Only 1,400 jobs were expected to change hands in the ten years from 2019 to 2029, a 7% increase in employment. This does not bode well!

Biotechnology (the other part of astro-biology) employs about 3 million people across various industries, according to the BLS. The majority of biology majors (35 percent) work in healthcare and technical fields. 2 percent of clinical laboratory technologists have bachelor’s degrees in this field, compared to 9 percent of those with master’s degrees in the same discipline.

The BLS reported in May of this year that the median salary for Biological Scientists was $89,910, and there were 41,680 people employed in this field. Most people are employed by the Executive Branch of the federal government (16,690), followed closely by Scientific Research and Development Services (16,690). (11,520). The most work is done in California (112,790), followed by Maryland (4,360).

Bottom Line

The internship program appears to be a good place to begin for anyone interested in pursuing astrobiology or other complementary sciences. Preferably while still in high school, to determine whether or not this is the place where you want to begin your undergraduate education. In addition, those who are considering a career in astrobiology should do their homework thoroughly. However much you love astronomy and biology, you still want to make sure you have a lot of job options when you graduate.

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