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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute 3 Training the Next Generation of Astrobiologists This chapter evaluates the success of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) in training the next generation of astrobiology researchers. NAI CONTRIBUTIONS University-based training of astrobiology students located at NAI nodes is an important activity that has historically included a broad range of undertakings, including the following: Students complete a dissertation in a traditional field such as astronomy, microbiology, geology, and so on. Students take additional coursework in a field outside their major concentration; for example, astronomers take a course in microbiology, or vice versa. Some universities require that students spend a semester or summer doing a research rotation in a laboratory not directly related to their primary field of study. Most universities with NAI programs offer a survey course, or at the very least a seminar, on astrobiology. In these courses students typically give presentations in their area of expertise for the rest of the class or are exposed to NAI-funded faculty members who co-teach the course. Some of the NAI teams also have student-run journal clubs to which faculty members are specifically not invited. The Astrobiology Graduate Conferences, a series of conferences held annually since 2004 and organized by graduate students to foster peer-to-peer communication within the broad community of students interested in astrobiology, give junior researchers the opportunity to practice speaking about their work in a collegial atmosphere.1 Students can contribute to the drafting of the student-written “Astrobiology Primer,” a general introduction to and summary of basic concepts in the traditional scientific disciples relevant to astrobiology.2 At present, no university offers a stand-alone degree in astrobiology. Students are currently awarded a degree in a traditional discipline with a certificate or a minor in astrobiology, indicating cross-disciplinary training beyond that required for the major discipline. Pennsylvania State University, for example, has already graduated students with undergraduate degrees in a traditional scientific discipline and a minor in astrobiology.3 It also
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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute offers a dual-title graduate program that awards a Ph.D. in a traditional science discipline and astrobiology.4 At the University of Washington, astrobiology graduates are awarded a Ph.D. in a traditional discipline and a graduate certificate in astrobiology.5 However, most of the students who have graduated from these programs have not been formally employed as astrobiologists and are filling positions in traditional disciplines. Former NAI postdoctoral fellows reported to the committee, however, that although astrobiology was not specified in the title for the position they filled, during the interview process their interdisciplinary training and astrobiology background were seen as a plus and served to set them apart from other candidates. In short, anecdotal evidence suggests that the interdisciplinary training of students in astrobiology is producing a new generation of scientists whose education has encouraged them to see the world in a broader context, although validating such a claim in a quantitative manner is beyond the scope of this study. Most astrobiology students remain active in the broader community, continuing to bring creative research ideas to the field and making efforts to foster collaborations with other departments and successfully tap into new sources of research funding. It is too soon to gauge the full impact of the NAI’s training efforts. Simply counting the number of graduates currently employed as astrobiologists not only is misleading but also glosses over important issues that are key to the continued growth and eventual acceptance of astrobiology as a formal science discipline. At this time, most scientists categorized as being “astrobiologists” are in faculty or other senior positions (e.g., in the civil service, and so on) not usually filled by newly minted Ph.D.s. The fact that some graduates continue on in their traditional discipline, and that many NAI postdoctoral positions are filled by people with no prior association with astrobiology or the NAI, is consistent with the early stages of a developing field. Recent graduates bring astrobiology into their home discipline, and up-and-coming researchers from traditional disciplines bring their expertise into the astrobiology community and the NAI specifically. This kind of interchange between fields is integral to the development of astrobiology as a science. A better approach to measuring the NAI’s success in training the next generation of astrobiologists is to follow these recent graduates through their postdoctoral years to see if they are publishing significant papers on astrobiology-related issues in major scientific journals, collaborating with a wide variety of scientists in other disciplines, successfully applying for astrobiology grants, winning awards (Table 3.1), attending astrobiology conferences, teaching astrobiology classes, and, in general, contributing to the field of astrobiology. The first astrobiology graduates are only just now reaching the point in their careers where they are obtaining faculty jobs (Table 3.2), principal investigator (PI) status on their own grants, and/or stable positions as research scientists. It is not unusual for a new Ph.D. to spend 5 years or more in postdoctoral positions before obtaining a permanent position. It is important to note the particular challenges young researchers face when trying to conduct interdisciplinary research within the highly discipline-oriented organization of research universities but outside the bounds of an existing astrobiology group.6 Graduate students and new assistant professors, for example, who need to impress the faculty in their home departments, can be under intense pressure to prove their competence in the departmental discipline, and this constraint can influence the way research is carried out and published. The particular challenges posed by undertaking interdisciplinary research include the following: Communications and cultural barriers that reflect the ways in which different scientific disciplines regard each other, use different vocabularies to describe common concepts, and have different ways of doing things.7 Organization of research and structuring of teaching activities around discipline-based departments—frequently mirroring the organization of funding organizations, professional societies, and scientific journals—in ways that affect decisions relating to hiring, promotion, tenure, and allocation of research resources (e.g., laboratory space).8 Requirements for additional training and/or for undertaking the research activities (e.g., field studies) necessary to be proficient in multiple disciplines, which can cut down on apparent research productivity and harm careers.9 The difficulties posed by the evaluation of interdisciplinary activities within the context of a single-discipline departmental culture.10
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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute TABLE 3.1 Examples of Awards Won by NAI-Affiliated Researchers Year of Award Award Recipient NAI Affiliation Current Affiliation 2000 AAS Annie J. Cannon Award in Astronomy Alycia J. Weinberger University of California, Los Angeles Carnegie Institution of Washington 2004 Sloan Research Fellowship Colin Nuckolls Scripps Research Institute Columbia University 2004 Sloan Research Fellowship Brad Hansen University of California, Los Angeles University of California, Los Angeles 2004 Presidential Early Career Awards Sarah Stewart-Mukhopadhyay Carnegie Institution of Washington Harvard University 2004 Sloan Research Fellowship Andrew Roger University of California, Los Angeles Dalhousie University 2004 Sloan Research Fellowship Dustin Trail University of Colorado Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 2005 Sloan Research Fellowship Michael Liu University of Hawaii University of Hawaii 2006 NASA Haskin Early Career Fellowship Michelle Minitti Arizona State University Arizona State University 2007 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Biomedical Research Institutions Initiative Seth Bordenstein Marine Biological Laboratory Marine Biological Laboratory 2007 L’Oréal USA Fellowship for Women in Science Julie Huber Marine Biological Laboratory Marine Biological Laboratory TABLE 3.2 Examples of NAI-Trained Researchers Who Have Obtained Faculty Positions Name NAI Affiliation NAI Role Current Faculty Position Charles Boyce Harvard University NAI Postdoctoral Fellow University of Chicago Seth Bordenstein Marine Biological Laboratory NAI Postdoctoral Fellow Marine Biological Laboratory James Farquhar Carnegie Institution of Washington and University of California, Los Angeles Postdoctoral Fellow University of Maryland Shannon Hinsa Michigan State University NAI Postdoctoral Fellow Grinnell College Julie Huber Marine Biological Laboratory NAI Postdoctoral Fellow Marine Biological Laboratory Matthew Hurtgen Harvard University NAI Postdoctoral Fellow Northwestern University Marc Kramer Ames Research Center NAI Postdoctoral Fellow University of California, Santa Cruz Michelle Minitti Arizona State University NAI Postdoctoral Fellow Arizona State University Stephen Mojzsis University of California, Los Angeles Postdoctoral Fellow University of Colorado Shuhei Ono Carnegie Institution of Washington Postdoctoral Fellow Harvard University Alexander Pavlov University of Colorado NAI Postdoctoral Fellow University of Arizona Susannah Porter University of California, Los Angeles NAI Postdoctoral Fellow University of California, Santa Barbara Henry Scott Carnegie Institution of Washington NAI Postdoctoral Fellow Indiana University Yanan Shen Harvard University NAI Postdoctoral Fellow University of Quebec, Montreal Margaret Turnbull Carnegie Institution of Washington NAI Postdoctoral Fellow Space Telescope Science Institute
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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute An important influence of astrobiology can be seen in a gradual diminishing of departmental barriers, although overcoming such barriers will likely be a long and challenging enterprise. Some useful lessons can be drawn from the history of the development of molecular biology. The movement to join biochemistry and genetics began with some forward-looking scientists in the early 1940s. But actual programs and departments in molecular biology took decades to establish even though individuals in the separate disciplines already thought of themselves as colleagues and collaborators. Among the most successful of the catalytic activities in this regard were the summer, laboratory-based courses for researchers, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Similarly, existing activities such as the Josep Comas i Sola International Summer School in Astrobiology (see Chapter 6) may represent an important foundation for a more expanded future program. RELATIONSHIP TO OTHER ASTROBIOLOGY PROGRAMS Traditionally, scientists are trained at the graduate level by taking a variety of courses in their disciplines and then focusing their research on a specific subdiscipline. Graduate students in existing NAI-supported astrobiology programs must do coursework in their home discipline and also gain interdisciplinary training primarily by being involved in research, by taking astrobiology courses (where available) or cross-bridging courses in other disciplines, or conducting a short research project outside their primary discipline. Although focused research is usually an important element of astrobiology training, it is not a substitute for the knowledge and experience gained by completing a formal curriculum. If astrobiology is to grow into a recognized discipline with associated degrees and sustained careers, formal curriculum development will be necessary. Two factors mitigate against the NAI achieving its goals of educating the next generation of astrobiologists. First, the relative impermanence of the NAI nodes is not consistent with the long-term stability needed to nurture a new generation of researchers. Second, the resources at the NAI’s disposal may be insufficient to the task, especially as compared to the case for another interdisciplinary field, oceanography, which has long-term commitments of funds that dwarf those available to astrobiology. The NAI is being asked to do what the oceanography community has done, but with only a few percentage of the funding for oceanography. Some observers might argue that if NASA thinks it is important to develop astrobiology into a stand-alone scientific discipline similar to oceanography, the agency needs to make the kind of funding commitments that will lead to success. The research-based approach to training currently emphasized by the NAI should be regarded as a transitional step along the way as the discipline is becoming established. However, such an approach, which varies broadly in its implementation across past and present NAI nodes, will not be entirely successful in allowing a new generation of young scientists to emerge as fully trained astrobiologists who understand the language, culture, and conceptual interfaces between the sciences that make up astrobiology. Yet it is clear to the committee that NASA’s experiment to establish the field has succeeded and that astrobiology is here to stay. To develop astrobiology properly into a new science discipline will require the establishment of formal educational and training programs to support the evolution and transformation of this nascent field. The NAI could play an active role in this evolution by promoting the establishment of integrated education programs at its partner institutions. However, such an effort requires commitments that extend beyond 5 years, a level of permanence that is currently difficult to assure. While some alumni members of the NAI at U.S. universities have made commitments to establish astrobiology programs on the basis of NAI 5-year funding contracts, longer-term commitments involving the establishment of research centers, targeted faculty hires, and commitment of faculty to develop curricula and supporting degree and certificate programs have been much harder to achieve. In the absence of a formal renewal process for NAI nodes at the conclusion of their 5-year funding period, university programs established, in part, using NAI funds have been discontinued because the host universities were not prepared to provide the resources needed to sustain the development of these programs. In other words, the organizational structure of the NAI is hindering the development of academic programs in astrobiology. The two educational and training programs that have been successfully established within the NAI to date (i.e., at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Washington) have succeeded because support for those programs extended beyond 5 years. In fact, the NAI can claim full credit for the establishment of only one of these programs, because funding to initiate the activities at the University of Washington was obtained from
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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute NSF’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program in 1998, 3 years before the University of Washington’s involvement with the NAI. The committee was told, however, that the NAI funds were important to the development of the University of Washington’s astrobiology program because the IGERT grant principally supported student salaries and provided very little for student travel or research. The NAI funds were used to support the research undertaken by the IGERT graduate students.11 Such sustained funding is critical for gaining the cooperation and support of university administrators, who must concern themselves with the long-term value of a program to the educational institution and the university’s ability to sustain students entering the field. The NAI’s recently instituted Director’s Discretionary Fund (DDF) grant program has been an effective tool for providing opportunities for the NAI to provide continuity of support for students who lose funding during the course of completing their degree. BALANCE OF NAI ACTIVITIES The training of young scientists by the NAI has been accomplished mainly through postdoctoral positions funded by the individual NAI teams. A minority of postdoctoral fellows (approximately 10 percent) are funded via a highly competitive NAI-wide postdoctoral fellowship program, which has provided full support (salary, benefits, and travel) for approximately six new junior scientists each year. Fellowships are renewable annually for a maximum of 3 years, during which fellows typically spend time at two or more NAI nodes, thus broadening their research experience. Statistics maintained by NAI Central indicate that most if not all former-NAI postdoctoral fellows have successfully moved into academic and research positions in the field.12 However, the postdoctoral program currently appears to be underfunded and overly competitive. Six new NAI postdoctoral fellows were selected each year between 2000 and 2005, except in 2003 and 2004 when five and seven were selected, respectively. However, only four fellows were selected in 2006, and only one was selected in 2007.13 Clearly, the budget cuts experienced by the Astrobiology program in 2006 have had a severe impact on the recruitment of junior scientists. As noted previously, graduate training efforts by the NAI have been promoted primarily through activities at the member nodes, although NAI Central has provided grants to support graduate student travel to meetings and occasional field seminars. Modest support for graduate student fieldwork has also been provided each year, for example, through the Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Fieldwork, a program jointly sponsored by the NAI and the American Philosophical Society. Graduate-level education and training have been implemented primarily through student involvement in research activities at the various NAI nodes. However, many academic departments around the country and at several NAI nodes have now established graduate and undergraduate courses in astrobiology, which is evidence of the impact of the field on university education. Such courses are currently supported by a half dozen textbooks published since the NAI was established, several of which have been written by scientists affiliated with the NAI. However, formal NAI-supported training programs, enhanced by organized curricula that could lead to the chance to earn minor degrees or certificates attached to traditional disciplines, have so far been successfully established only by the NAI team at Pennsylvania State University. This particular program appears to have been possible because of the longer period of commitment afforded by NAI’s award of funding for a second 5-year term. RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FUTURE NAI ACTIVITIES With respect to the goal of training the next generation of astrobiology researchers, the committee finds that the NAI has: Trained graduates who are now employed in academic and other positions. Former NAI postdoctoral fellows who contacted the committee reported that they had been very successful in obtaining employment in their fields, although they are not always engaged solely in astrobiology. This anecdotal evidence is backed up by statistics compiled by the NAI showing that most, if not all, of its former postdoctoral fellows have moved on to academic positions or other research appointments.14 However, the training of graduate and undergraduate students in astrobiology has been hampered to some extent by a scarcity of formal educational programs. If the field is to
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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute continue to grow within the United States, it will be necessary to provide broader opportunities for formal training of the next generation of students by developing integrated curricula and programs of study at leading educational institutions. Promoted the establishment of new programs and faculty positions in astrobiology at several universities. There are not many faculty appointments in astrobiology, but the breadth of training does appear to help graduates obtain positions in related departments, according to comments provided to the committee by former NAI postdoctoral fellows and NAI PIs. Success in establishing new university education programs in astrobiology comes with special requirements, including assembling a critical mass of university faculty who collectively represent the major subdisciplines of astrobiology, providing reasonable breadth in the curriculum and research environment, and supplying sustained support that allows programs to grow to a steady state including the capacity to confer formal degrees. Not been sufficiently proactive in countering the negative effects on training and education programs caused by recent cuts to NASA’s Astrobiology budget. The instability created by these cuts has had an adverse effect on the growth of graduate training programs, interrupted student research programs, and discouraged many students from entering the field. Stability in training and education programs will remain a key requirement for the continued success of the NAI. Recommendation: The NAI should work toward developing more consistent educational and training opportunities. In addition, the NAI should ensure more stable support of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in astrobiology. The committee suggests the following actions to implement this recommendation: The NAI Fellowship program could continue to be supported at a level commensurate with the number of NAI nodes and used to provide more stable support for graduate researchers. In addition, to promote the growth of interdisciplinary interactions, fellows could be encouraged to pursue science projects that cross-link the expertise at two or more NAI nodes. One route to developing formal curricula would be to encourage the establishment of one or more member nodes in astrobiology that emphasize the synergy between research and the training of undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows. NASA Specialized Centers for Research and Training (NSCORT)—e.g., the NSCORT in Exobiology at the University of California, San Diego or the New York Center on Studies of the Origins of Life—provide a potential model for how such nodes might be established. An external review of the two NSCORTs issued in early 2002 attested to the quality of the two programs and commented that “the NSCORTs have served to enhance greatly the education of the next generation of astrobiologists, breaking down barriers between fields, and enhancing multidisciplinary research. The result is a remarkable cohort of young scientists who are creatively addressing questions in the field of astrobiology or who are bringing these abilities to more traditional fields. The breadth and depth of knowledge that the students obtain and the excitement they continue to display for astrobiology research is a direct result of the NSCORTs.”15 Given that most NAI nodes lack the resources to establish such programs and that their growth requires commitments longer than 5 years, such training programs could be sustained by an NSCORT-like program within the NAI that runs in parallel with more research-oriented activities. The NAI could consider continuing its policy of the selective use of the DDF to stabilize student funding levels and to protect them against future cuts. It is important for NASA to recognize that continuity for the training of the next generation of astrobiologists is essential for the development of astrobiology as a credible field of science. NOTES 1. For more information about the conference series see http://abgradcon.arc.nasa.gov/index.php?fuseaction=home.home. 2. L.J. Mix et al. (eds.), “The Astrobiology Primer: An Outline of General Knowledge—Version 1, 2006,” Astrobiology 6: 735-813, 2006. Available at http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1089/ast.2006.6.735. 3. For more information see http://www.geosc.psu.edu/undergrads/minors/astrobiology.php. 4. For more information see http://www.psu.edu/bulletins/whitebook/programs/abiol.htm.
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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute 5. For more information see http://depts.washington.edu/astrobio/certificate/. 6. See, for example, National Research Council, Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2005. 7. National Research Council, Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2005, pp. 1 and 68. 8. National Research Council, Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2005, pp. 1-2 and 69-79. 9. National Research Council, Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2005, p. 68. 10. National Research Council, Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2005, pp. 73 and 75. 11. Personal communication, John Baross, University of Washington, October 4, 2007. 12. Personal communication, Daniella Scalice, NASA Astrobiology Institute, July 26, 2007. 13. Personal communication, Daniella Scalice, NASA Astrobiology Institute, July 26, 2007. 14. Personal communication, Daniella Scalice, NASA Astrobiology Institute, July 26, 2007. 15. S. Solomon, M. Bernstein, C. Cavanaugh, J. Dasch, D. Deamer, C. Pilcher, J. Pratt, M. Meyer, and W. Berger, “Review of the Astrobiology NSCORT Review Panel,” unpublished report chartered by NASA’s Office of Space Science, February 18, 2002.