UK Centre for Astrobiology

News

Here you can find the latest news from the UK Centre for Astrobiology.

Postdoctoral fellow success for PhD student

April 2024

Congratulations to UKCA PhD student Annemiek Waajen who has been selected as a Schmidt Science Fellow.

PhD student Annemiek Waajenhas been selected as one of the 32 researchers in this year’s cohort of Schmidt Science Fellows.

This prestigious postdoctoral program harnesses an interdisciplinary approach as a way to break down silos among scientific fields in order to solve the world’s biggest challenges and support future leaders in STEM. The 2024 fellows consist of 17 nationalities across North America, Europe, and Asia. 

Annemiek’s postdoctoral research will focus on permafrost thawing and its impact on climate change.

The increasing temperatures in the Arctic, resulting from climate change, will lead to the thawing of currently frozen (permafrost) soils, soils that store large amounts of carbon. To what extent this will contribute to climate change is not well understood due to research limitations. 

As a 2024 Schmidt Science Fellow, Annemiek plans to build a holistic perspective on permafrost thawing, comparing single-site and single-method studies in a global, multi-omics meta-analysis. This insight will help address this issue and support policymakers in limiting its impact.

The Schmidt Science Fellows program provides the world’s best emerging scientists with new skills and perspectives to develop novel solutions to society’s challenges, become scientific and societal thought leaders, and accelerate ground-breaking discoveries.

Each Fellow will undertake a year-long Science Leadership Program to develop the skills, experience and networks necessary to become the next generation of interdisciplinary science leaders alongside a one- to two-year research placement at an internationally-renowned lab.

Schmidt Science Fellows is an initiative of Schmidt Sciences, delivered in partnership with the Rhodes Trust.

 

Start of the new MSc in Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences  

September 2023

We are excited and pleased to welcome the students of the first year of the MSc Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

On this programme they will develop critical thinking about astrobiology and planetary science in their social contexts, research methods and how different scientific approaches address fundamental questions about life in the universe.

Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences MSc | The University of Edinburgh

 

The Tartan Tardigrade podcast is back 

September 2023

UKCA student Mia Frothingham speaks to PhD candidate Caprice Phillips from The Ohio State University. 

The Tartan Tardigrade - Episode 11: Caprice Phillips 

UKCA members participate to ASB9

September 2023

Wide representation of the UKCA at the 9th  Astrobiology Society of Britain conference.

The conference celebrates the first 20 years of the Astrobiology Society of Britain. Among the keynote speakers, the organising commission invited Rosa Santomartino from UKCA.

UKCA welcomes new Senior Astrobiology Technician Nim Felton to Edinburgh 

August 2023

We are pleased to welcome Miss Nim Felton to the UKCA.

Nim Felton joined the UKCA this week as our new Senior Astrobiology Technician. Nim joined us from the Edge Hill University, were she worked as a biology technician, and has a deep fascination with Astrobiology and extremophilic life.

New UK Centre for Astrobiology logo 

LogoNEW

August 2023

We are pleased to announce our new UK Centre for Astrobiology logo, developed to celebrate our first 10 years of research and science activities in the astrobiology and space biology field!

The new logo, designed by Dr Sean McMahon, reinterprets the three-colour motif of the former one by adding further details and improving its graphics. Colours of the logo summarises the main objects of interests in astrobiology and space biology: blue represents Earth and space, red represents Mars as a prominent example of the whole spectrum of extraterrestrial planetary bodies, green indicates life and biology.

UKCA strengthens link with Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell through Joint Research and Education Seed Grant

June 2023

CSI visit

UKCA co-director Sean McMahon and MScR student in Palaeontology and Geobiology Mia Belle Frothingham travelled to Ithaca, NY between 3-8 June 2023 to pursue a new collaboration between the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell (CSI) and the UKCA, two of the world’s leading hubs for astrobiological research. The collaboration is funded by the Global Cornell Joint Research and Education Seed Grant.

PI Lisa Kaltenegger at Cornell has previously pioneered using hemispherical reflectance measurements to catalogue the colours of organisms as comparisons for the biosignatures that may be resolvable on exoplanets. PI McMahon at Edinburgh has led the study of false biosignatures and how we can accurately identify non-biological processes mimicking the evidence of life.

In this new collaboration, we are testing the novel hypothesis that combinations of minerals, organic matter, and atmospheric conditions may lead to false biosignatures in exoplanet reflectance spectra obtained by next-generation telescopes. We anticipate crucial publishable results that will pave the way for significant further collaboration between the CSI and the UKCA.

Dr Corentin Loron is awarded a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellowship

May 2023

Congratulations to Dr Corentin Loron, member of the Planetary Paleobiology Group of UKCA, for winning a competitive Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship. Starting from February 2024, Dr Loron will work on his own research project, aiming to identify fossil life on Mars using spectroscopy and machine-learning.

2022-2023 University of Edinburgh Changemaker Award

April 2023

UKCA co-director Rosa Santomartino, together with colleagues Patricia Gonzalez, Tracy Scott and Neil Corsie, has been awarded for her commitment to establishing the JCMB Biolab Sustainability group. The group has the aim to reduce the environmental impact of research practices by appropriate laboratory waste disposal and recycling, reducing single-use plastics, and implementing energy-saving initiatives. 

Have a look at all the excellent people and groups awarded this year: 2022-23 Changemaker Award recipients | The University of Edinburgh

Youtube interview: Early Earth Microbes May Have Eaten Raw Meteorites.

April 2023

Annemiek Waajen and Rebecca Prescott from the UKCA have been interviewed by the YouTube channel “SciShow Space” about their research on microbes and meteorites. The channel made an episode on how microbes may have eaten meteorites on Early Earth, a research project we are currently working on at the UKCA.

Have a look at the episode to find out more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BexmYmcW-Hs

UKCA research features on BBC's The Sky at Night

April 2023

UKCA co-director Sean McMahon and MScR student Mia Frothingham were featured on the BBC's flagship astronomy programme, The Sky at Night. The episode was entitled, "The Search for Alien Life" and broadcast on the 10th of April. UK TV license-holders can watch the episode here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m001kytj/the-sky-at-night-the-search-for-alien-life.

UKCA research features on BBC Radio 4 Inside Science programme

March 2023

UKCA co-director Rosa Santomartino was featured on episode the BBC Radio 4 Inside Science programme. In this episode, Dr Santomartino discussed how microorganisms could support space exploration in a sustainable way, and how this could enhance our capacity to tackle environmental issues on Earth: 

BBC Radio 4 - BBC Inside Science, Covid – missing link found?

UKCA welcomes new postdoctoral fellow Pamela Knoll to Edinburgh 

January 2023

We are pleased to welcome Dr Pamela Knoll to the UKCA for two years.

Pamela Knoll joined the UKCA this week on a Human Frontiers Science Program Postdoctoral Fellowship. Pamela is a physical chemist with a PhD from Florida State University and postdoctoral experience at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) in Granada, where she held a Fulbright Award. Her interests focus on nonlinear dynamics, self-organization in inorganic materials, and biomineralization. In Edinburgh, her research will explore biomineral selection by extremophilic microorganisms.

UKCA launches new MSc programme in Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences

December 2022

Video: MSc Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences
MSc Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences

The UK Centre for Astrobiology (UKCA) in the University of Edinburgh's School of Physics & Astronomy is launching a new MSc in Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences. The MSc in Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences is the UK’s first Masters in astrobiology. The programme builds on Edinburgh’s substantial and leading role in astrobiology, geobiology and planetary sciences, including cometary studies and exoplanet science. Students will be fully embedded in the UKCA.

Click here to apply for applications for September 2023 entry.

Information on funded Scholarships is coming soon.

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be working in these fields and we very much look forward to welcoming the next generation of astrobiologists and planetary scientists to Edinburgh to participate in our programme.

Dr Sean McMahonProgramme Director, MSc in Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences
Astronaut

Astrobiology and the planetary sciences are interdisciplinary subjects that build on physics, chemistry, biology and geosciences to answer fundamental questions. Astrobiologists seek to understand life in an astronomical context: how it forms, varies and evolves in concert with planets and stars, and how it is distributed across time and space. Planetary scientists investigate the origin, diversity and behaviour of planets, moons, rings, asteroids, comets, and solar systems. Together, these sciences offer a distinctive and mind-expanding perspective on our own place in the universe. 

The MSc programme will provide graduates with an exciting foundation in the rapidly advancing interdisciplinary science of life in the universe while offering methodological training for further technical or academic work in the planetary, life, or space sciences.

The key features of the programme are:

  • Full-time programme, 12 months
  • Taught components in astrobiology (theory and methods), planetary sciences, and a range of optional courses from environmental geochemistry to space law
  • A research dissertation

Click here for more information.

New popular science book: Taxi From Another Planet

Taxi From Another Planet

UKCA co-director Charles Cockell has published a new popular science book with Harvard University Press. "Taxi from Another Planet" is designed to make the cosmos accessible to any reader on Earth.

We all know cabbies like to talk - and when Charles Cockell is in the back seat, topics like the potential for alien life and the benefits of space exploration often come up. Each essay in this convivial collection takes questions like, Will we understand aliens?, What if there isn't life out in the Universe?, and Why is the government spending tax dollars on space programs anyway? as a jumping-off point for discussion. Taxi from Another Planet is available now. Get your copy here on Amazon.

Science, society, and history are woven together throughout this delightful book, resembling the many intertwining streets of Cockell's journeys, and ours.

Kevin Peter HandAuthor of Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space

UKCA welcomes new Fellow - Ziyao Fang to Edinburgh

We are pleased to welcome Ziyao Fang to the UKCA for two years

Ziyao did his PhD in geochemistry in the University of Science and Technology of China. His interests are in planetary surface processes, the coevolution of life and planets, and isotopic and biomarker signatures of life. He has worked in the Qaidam Basin in Tibet among other places to study the signatures of life in evaporites. At Edinburgh, he will be carrying out a fellowship studying the distribution and nature of isotopic signatures in different sulfate deposits.

UKCA session at Oxford for Romania Summer School

August 2022

Sean in Oxford

Every year the Oxford for Romania charity runs a Summer School in Oxford providing an eye-opening learning experience for high school students in Romania with great academic potential and limited financial means. This year, UKCA co-director Dr Sean McMahon travelled to Magdalen College, Oxford to lead a session on astrobiology and discuss academic career pathways with the students. 

Students were introduced to core astrobiological concepts including habitability and biosignatures and solved a practical exercise on the temperature profile of Mars before conducting a debate on Mars colonisation. Feedback from the students included: "I never heard of astrobiology before and Sean’s course was captivating, interesting and funny," and "I seriously consider I could do something like this moving forward".

 

UKCA hosts workshop on self-organisation and abiotic formation  of 'life-like' structures

Meeting photograph

The UKCA is hosting a workshop (June 6th to 10th 2022) on abiotic self-organization and pattern formation in rocks, minerals, and other geological materials (including chemobrionic self-organization or “chemical gardens”).

The meeting is funded by the EU COST Action Chemobrionics (https://www.chemobrionics.eu/) and will bring about 30 scientists to Edinburgh from around the world. This meeting will inform future studies of how life can be distinguished from the complex products of “life-like” abiotic self-organization, helping us avoid mistakes in the recognition of extraterrestrial biology. We will share evidence, theoretical developments, practical advice/protocols, and demonstrations on two questions:

(1) which geological phenomena (mineral formations, diagenetic phenomena, pseudofossils, etc.) can be elucidated by investigating them as instances of self-organization, i.e., spontaneous pattern-formation driven by the internal dynamics of nonequilibrium systems? (Established examples in geoscience include Liesegang rings, agate banding, manganese dendrites and basalt columns);

(2) how do specific experimental, numerical, and analytical methods help us to understand these phenomena?

 

Fellowship Successes: Space Microbiology and Early Life

Spring 2022

We welcome and congratulate two postdoctoral staff members beginning highly prestigious and competitive Leverhulme and Royal Society research fellowships at the UK Centre for Astrobiology.

Dr Rosa Santomartino, previously a postdoctoral scientist working with Prof Charles Cockell, has been awarded an Early Career Fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust.

Dr Corentin Loron, who recently completed a doctorate in palaeobiology at the University of Liège, joins the Planetary Palaeobiology Group at the UKCA as a Newton Fellow supported by the Royal Society. 

Dr Santomartino's research in space microbiology focuses on the molecular mechanisms that drive microbial interaction with natural and artificial environments in space, to perform space biomanufacturing, recycling and in-situ resource utilisation (ISRU), and to promote an efficient and sustainable impact of space exploration and its terrestrial applications. She performed two microbiology experiments onboard the International Space Station, BioRock and BioAsteroid, launched in space in 2019 and 2020 respectively. She is an invited scientific advisor in microbiology for the Italian Space Agency, and collaborated with international scientists in the creation of the NASA Decadal Survey on microbiology.

Dr Loron's research focuses on the use of state-of-the-art microanalytical techniques to investigate the fossil record of early life on Earth, with implications for the tempo of major evolutionary events and the search for life on Mars and beyond. His previous achievements include discovering a new species of organic-walled microfossil that may represent the oldest known fossil fungus, a diagnosis supported by infrared spectroscopy and scanning electron microscopy. His work at the UKCA will focus on the development of new experimental and analytical tools for interrogating very ancient organic materials, and on further resolving the evolutionary history of major groups of life on Earth.

Building Habitable Worlds Workshop 2022

April 2022

Building Habitable Worlds 2022

After a two-year break, Edinburgh has hosted the  2022 Building Habitable Worlds meeting, a chance for early career researchers in astrobiology to get together to discuss common research interests and collaborations.

Dr Sean McMahon gave an introductory talk on “Baselines, Biosignatures, and Bayesians: Anticipating Ambiguity in the Search for Life”.   Attendees gave three-minute pitches on their area of research and then participated in open discussion to share their research and foster new collaborations.  Discussions at this year’s meeting focused on the detection and interpretation of biosignatures and the non-biological background noise we observe in every system. Discussions continued at an informal dinner and at the pub later in the evening.

Thank you to Melanie Podbielski for organising this event and to all the participants.

 

UKCA contributes to Oxford Union Mars debate

February 2022

McMahon at the Union

Dr Sean McMahon, co-director of the UK Centre for Astrobiology, was invited to speak in a debate on the motion "This House Would Populate Mars" at the Oxford Union, arguably the foremost debating society in the world. Dr McMahon opposed the motion for three reasons: the extreme unpleasantness of human life on Mars, the lack of any compelling need to settle other planets, and the obligation to preserve the aesthetic, cultural and scientific value of extraterrestrial environments. The motion was defeated. Also speaking in the debate were Dr Greg Autry of Arizona State University, Alfredo Munoz of the Space Architecture Technical Committee, Dr Sylvia Ekstrom of the Geneva Observatory, and the science journalist Dr Anjana Ahuja.

Dr McMahon's speech can be watched here: https://youtu.be/Rgex3NfloHU