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In this course we will address fundamental questions of the natural world including: Are we alone?, Is life common or rare in the Universe?, How do we go about looking for life elsewhere? and What is the future of life on Earth and beyond?
 
To wrestle with these questions we will take an interdisciplinary planetary science approach that involves the content, origin and evolution of the Solar System and the potential for life elsewhere. That is to examine the chemical and physical aspects of habitability, the overarching characteristics of life, the physical and chemical conditions for life and so on. We will draw on material from planetary and Earth science, chemistry, biology, astronomy and physics. Additionally, students will gain insight into how scientists unravel the meaning of experimental and observational evidence. This course emphasizes the scientific method helping students hone their critical thinking skills.
Spring 2018 TR 11:00-12:15pm

Why take astrobiogeochemistry?

ENVS180A astrobiogeochemistry

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Into the deep.

Into the deep.

Learn how the deepest of the deepest sea teach us about habitability and life at the extremes.

Old souls!

Old souls!

Learn how these filamentous cyanobacteria live a lifestyle that has been around in the oceans for billions of years. What can their evolution and persistence tell us about life on Earth?

In the field.

In the field.

Here, Dr. Wolfe-Simon is waiting for experiments to begin in the field. Note the bubbling hot spring. Scientists go to the most extreme environments on Earth to probe what habitability means.

Meteor crater.

Meteor crater.

Imagine how this enormous rock lit up the sky and slammed into the Earth millions of years ago.

The beach.

The beach.

These waters are mineral rich and... toxic! With naturally high concentrations of arsenic, sulfur and selenium, you might assume this to be uninhabitable. However, this environment and others like it support a vast and complicated food web including birds.

Tubes of many colors.

Tubes of many colors.

This is a unique collection of pigmented bacteria, most of which are photosynthetic. The pigments can tell you a lot about what kind of light harvesting an organism can, or cannot, do. In particular, can you guess which one is not photosynthetic? Moreover, we might be able to predict pigments based on stars in other galaxies. Can you imagine, a purple plant?!

Pink the new green?

Pink the new green?

Here Dr. Wolfe-Simon holds a sample of pink anoxygenic photosynthetic bacteria from a few meters down at Green Lake. These organisms represent a more ancient, and thus primitive, form of photosynthesis that uses sulfide and not water. Amazing!

Glass diatoms.

Glass diatoms.

This is an electron micrograph of Thalassiosira pseudonana. Grown by Dr. Wolfe-Simon to understand their success in the modern ocean, they make their "shells" out of glass and can pull CO2 from the atmosphere. When did they evolve? When will they go extinct?

Murchison meteorite.

Murchison meteorite.

No other words needed!

Sampling.

Sampling.

Here is a picture of a deep sea rosetta sampling device. Here we can take samples of very deep waters to find out what the biogeochemistry is- how could we do this elsewhere in the universe?

In situ is key.

In situ is key.

Dr. Wolfe-Simon here preparing for another in situ experiment. Scientists have to travel light and bring critical gear to both sample and run experiments in harsh environments. Could we do this on Mars? On Titan? Beyond?

Instruments.

Instruments.

This instrument can measure the wide array of elements in a sample. This gives scientists an idea of the composition, but it takes many more experiments to tease out what the chemistry and chemicals are in samples. This ICPMS is shown with Dr. Wolfe-Simon for scale.

Meet The Professor:

Felisa Wolfe-Simon

Chan-Norris Distinguished Visiting Professor

Department of Chemistry and Physics

Mills College

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Who I Am

 

Dr. Wolfe-Simon did her undergraduate work at Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music where she graduated with a B.A. in Biology (Chemistry) and a B.M. in Music Performance. She went on to earn her Ph.D. in Oceanography from Rutgers University. She has been recognized with numerous academic honors inlcuding being a Kavli Fellow from the U.S. National Academy of Science, a NASA Fellowship and a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship. She has authored or co-authored more than a dozen scientific publications and her work has been published in or covered by Science, Nature, The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, the BBC, Wired and Time among others.

 

Dr. Wolfe-Simon has also garnered a number of popular accolades including TED speaker, named one of the Time 100 in 2011 and featured in Glamour magazine. Schedules permitting, she helps when she can with various media outlets indluding PBS, the BBC, Discovery Channel and NOVA. She also regularly speaks at museums and schools.

For more information, go here.

What I Do

 

Dr. Wolfe-Simon spent more than 15 years as a research scientist. Some of her work attracted international attention. Since that time, she has committed her life to helping train the next generation of scientists. She is focused on teaching and scientific outreach at all academic and interest levels.

Watch my TED talk here.

 

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In situ is key.

Dr. Wolfe-Simon here preparing for another in situ experiment. Scientists have to travel light and bring critical gear to both sample and run experiments in harsh environments. Could we do this on Mars? On Titan? Beyond?