Help secure the future of the Iceland and Hawaii Astrobiology Summer Schools!

Hello early-career astrobiologists!

The new institutes recently funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute represent an exciting path for astrobiology, but these new directions challenge the continuation of the Iceland and Hawaii Astrobiology Summer and Winter schools as the institutes leading the efforts were *not* renewed.

Having personally participated in the Iceland 2012 school, I know first hand how great this school was not only in terms of astrobiology education, but to see first hand unique sites of astrobiological relevance, and connect with astrobiologists from across the world.

In an effort to communicate the benefit of these schools to NASA management, it would be wonderful if you could include, below, how the summer schools have benefited you and your career. These messages will be used to seek funding to ensure the continuation of these amazing educational opportunities for early-career astrobiologists.

Thanks for your help!

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I have attended UHNAI-Nordic Astrobiology Winter School, held in Hawaii, January 1-14, 2014. It was a fantastic trip and a great learning opportunity. I bonded with many future colleagues (a few of whom were coincidentally in the same subfield of instrumentation for biosignatures as me!) as well as with the lecturers and our mentors. I still keep in contact with several of these friends and colleagues I made during that trip. I have even consulted some of them for advice on my research. I have had many very useful discussions with them about research and believe our common research interests will keep us in touch for many years to come. In fact, I even discussed possible postdoc opportunities with mentor who I met during the trip. 

Please continue funding for programs such as these. Without the financial support of the UHNAI, this trip would not have been possible and I would not have been able to spend over a week literally living on a volcano and learning both in and outside the classroom. Sure, classes, colloquia, and conferences are cheaper venues where graduate students can learn and further their graduate careers. But learning happens outside the classroom and conference hall. Eating, living, playing, and exploring with a winter school group goes above the experience in a conference or a classroom. Summer and winter schools like the Nordic-NASA programs to Iceland and Hawaii are invaluable to help students spend multiple weeks in an informal setting securing life-long friendships, collaborations, and colleagues, and thoroughly exploring field sites that are crucial to astrobiology analog studies and learning examples. 

I attended the 2012 Nordic-NAI Astrobiology Summer School, and it was an unforgettable experience on many grounds.

First, the field setting was great. Of course, Iceland include amazing sites of prime astrobiological interest. But beyond the scientific curiosity, it's a great learning experience to physically go to hot springs, geysers, glaciers, and lava fields. Modelers like me don't necessarily get to go to the field, and some will never see it. Yet, it is essential to experience what kinds of environments you're trying to model. This trip has greatly influenced my modeling work in this respect. Not to mention how much better I understand fieldwork talks, now that I am acquainted with sample collection and associated quirks.

Second, I met many early-career scientists with whom I've kept in touch. I know some within our group started a research collaboration based on the group project of our summer school (detecting life in seemingly lifeless settings using a tracer for adenosine triphosphate, a method that might end up being used in robotic missions to other planets of the solar system). These summer schools are weaving long-lasting networks. In ten years, if I need advice from someone from a field completely different from mine (say, mapping aqueous landforms on Mars), I'll know who to ask thanks to the summer school.

Third, the lectures in the disciplines of astrobiology were invaluable, especially to those who don't have pluridisciplinary exposure at their home institution. I have learned enough geology and volcanology in Iceland to follow a majority of high-level conversations on the topic, which would have remained arcane otherwise.

Finally, the international character of the school offers a unique opportunity of witnessing how science is done on the other side of the pond, and gives career perspectives. It is easy as a student to think we are set on one career path, but learning how differently career paths go in other countries can broaden our options.

In short, these summer schools seem a not-so-expensive way of training 40 astrobiologists every 1.5 years in the aspects above. I strongly believe that the science benefits for the field far outweigh the NASA Astrobiology Institute's investments in the school.

I attended the 2012 Nordic-NAI Astrobiology Summer School in Iceland. It was key experience in my still young carrier for the following reasons:

  • Coming from astronomy, the school really sensitized me for the importance of other fields such as geology or biology within astrobiology. The practical field work made me aware of the possibilities, but also the challenges faced by researchers working in an astrobiologically relevant fields different from astronomy. This is crucial knowledge for an astrobiologist who should be able to carry out multidisciplinary research.
  • The lectures were a great way of getting basic as well as advanced astrobiology training. In particular, there is no comparable training available (at the graduate student level) at my home institution.
  • In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges for an astrobiologist is the interdisciplinary character of the field. Astrobiological research most often involves researchers from various backgrounds. The school was a unique opportunity to connect to young carrier scientist from other fields. Two weeks of lectures and especially field work created contacts that will be useful for many years. Basically, I know who to ask if I need particular expertise.

In summary, I believe that schools like the Nordic-NAI summer school in Iceland are the best way of training and connecting future astrobiologists from various backgrounds. In particular, these schools are tailored to the special needs of young researchers within astrobiology arising from the interdisciplinary character of the field.

I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in the January 2014 NASA-Nordic UHNAI Astrobiology Winter school (the theme was "Water and the Evolution of Life in the Universe"). It was a two-week-long workshop in Hawaii (Hilo and Honolulu) where the attendees were able to not only participate in dozens of interesting lectures on some of the newest research in Astrobiology, but also to utilize our amazing location (i.e. Kilauea volcano and Mauna Kea summit observatories) to learn tons of Astrobiology-related science.

One of the really cool opportunities we had during the workshop was to participate in a poster session. The “session” was actually done over the course of three nights, so that everyone in the group (there were 30 "students" total) had a chance to present their own poster, as well as walk around to see all the other posters and to ask questions. I found it really helpful to have people from all sorts of different disciplines (we had people spanning a huge range of research topics, including evolutionary biology, biochemistry, geology, planetary science, astrophysics, and more) come by my poster and ask questions.

From this experience I’ve learned that sometimes it's the most basic and profound questions about your research that can be the hardest to answer when you are discussing the topic with someone outside of your own field. It was an extremely educational activity, not only because I was able to practice delivering my research presentation in a clear and concise manner (and I was challenged to answer questions that I had never even thought of before) but also because I got to learn about all the other participants' research as well. The breadth of topics there was really astounding, and just getting to learn even a little bit from so many disciplines associated with Astrobiology was a priceless experience in terms of preparing me for a career in the field.

Also, actually being in Hawaii certainly can't be overlooked, as it allowed us to take two days of the entire two weeks and go out on some field trips. These were all very science-oriented and we all learned a lot! One of them was a tour of the Mauna Kea summit -- as an astronomer, it was an amazing opportunity to see where so much cutting edge science is done. Additionally, when we were staying in Hilo on the big island, we got to do a lot of exploration of the active volcano (which is probably one of the coolest things I've ever seen) and we had many associated lectures on volcanism in general to go along with our location. We even learned about how the same types of volcanic processes that occur on Earth might actually help to shape habitable environments on alien planets as well! Really intriguing stuff.

In addition to the incredible science I was privileged to learn over the course of the workshop, I have also come away from this experience with several great friends, and strong connections to other people working in the field of Astrobiology. I have also even been able to refine my own research ideas and come up with some new ideas after discussions with some of the Winter School teachers/lecturers. These new networks I have formed will surely be hugely important as I move forward in my career as a research scientist in this field.

I would be really sad to see this amazing program be discontinued in the future. I think it's a wonderful chance to network with people you might have never met otherwise, and I probably learned the most (sometimes in unexpected ways) from the people who work outside my field. Additionally, it's a priceless opportunity to learn about so many fascinating topics first hand from world-class researchers in such a breath-taking, naturally beautiful location.

I attended the 2011 Hawaii astrobiology winter school, which was among the best two weeks of my life for multiple reasons:

1. Exposure to other disciplines. As a planetary geologist, I only knew the basics of other astrobiology-related fields. In addition to learning about astrobiology research in disciplines outside my own, being immersed in an interdisciplinary environment allowed me to put my work in the context of the broad field of astrobiology as well as see the links with other fields, perhaps laying the groundwork for interdisciplinary work in the future.

2. Quality of speakers. I was very impressed with the talks given by the speakers and their ability to deliver detailed material that could still be followed by non-specialists. I also enjoyed talking to them during meals and the activities in which some of them participated.

3. Attention to detail. The organizers, led by Karen Meech, did a fantastic job of selecting speakers, topics, activities, field trips, locations, and really, everything. The activities and trips complemented the material of the talks nicely, allowing us to understand the methods that people in other fields utilize in order to study astrobiology.

4. The participants. I have stayed in touch with many of the other participants, some of whom are now close friends. I imagine opportunities in the future for collaborating with them on interdisciplinary projects that wouldn't be possible otherwise since it is easy to stay within the bubble of one's own field. Furthermore, the participants hailed from countries all over the world, which provided the school with an interesting mix of people who I enjoyed getting know.

Overall, the school was an energizing and educational experience for me as a burgeoning astrobiologist, and I hope future grad students will have the opportunity to gain what I did from the astrobiology school.

I participated in the Hawaii Astrobiology Winter School 2014 - early this year, and I am extremely happy I got a chance to be a part of it.

What struck me the most first was the incredible organization of the workshop, and amazingly thorough attention to detail, as a previous author writes. The lecturers were top-notch - many of them were well-known researchers in the various sub-fields of astrobiology. All of the lectures were well-delivered, and content was made accessible to students from different disciplines. Small crash course in fields including astronomy, astrochemistry, cosmochemistry, geology and biology were given prior to all the lectures to help us feel more familiar about the content that was going to be discussed. A discussion session also followed every talk.

Karen Meech did an impressive job of planning the whole school - with excellent lecturers, well-organized hands on project activities, student poster sessions, field trips to Mauna Kea telescopes, volcanic features -lavatubes, HISEAS Human Exploration facility, a day hike over ancient lava fields to mention some.

Getting to meet other graduate students and postdocs in astrobiology, talking to them and sharing ideas with them were definitely one of the top highlights of the workshop. I still keep in touch with some of the students I meet here, and I have met a few of the students and faculty routinely in some later conferences as well.

Hawaii was just the perfect location to organize such an event, what with its rich geologic heritage and its incredible wealth of world class astronomical telescopes that sit atop Mauna Kea. Also being in Hawaii gave me a unique feeling of living in a foreign volcanic island world teeming with exotic islandlike life, that had evolved and adapted in its own way to the present. Astrobiology was already all around us!

I really hope that the funding for these incredible schools is continued, and that more future graduate students can benefit from them. They are truly unique and very useful experiences for an early career astrobiologist! 

I participated in the 2012 UHNAI-Nordic Astrobiology Summer School in Iceland. It was one of the most positive experiences of my career so far. 

My research in graduate school is focused on numerical modeling, a research topic that rarely takes me away from my computer. Participating in the summer school gave me the opportunity to move beyond the computer and understand how astrobiology research is done in the field. The experience opened my eyes to a wide range of research that can be done in the field. I also got to meet astrobiologists from around the world. These are contacts that I would not have had without the summer school.

Participation in the summer school has had a lasting effect. Several of the summer school attendees continued research, and they are now publishing a peer-reviewed paper about their discoveries from several field sites in Iceland that we first encountered in the summer school. I, myself, have spoken about the summer school during several K-12 outreach events. Speaking about my experiences has been a wonderful way to excite kids about science. 

Attending these schools is one of the most unique and special experiences an early-career astrobiologist can have. Discontinuing the summer and winter schools sends a powerful message that early-career education is not as important as it used to be, a message that NASA should not want to send to young scientists. Continuing the schools will represent NASA's dedication to the next generation of scientists.

Dear past Winter / Summer school attendees - *thank you* so much for all the kind words! What really makes these schools special is having all of you participate, and I hope that we can continue!

This will be exceptionally helpful for us to try to secure funding to continue these schools. Please send messages to colleagues who attended the schools with you and ask them to
 record their thoughts also . . . the more responses that  come in, the more this will be of
 impact for a request to continue these programs. 

Thank you very much!

Karen

I hope it is not too late to add my note - I can't express my gratitude enough that I was able to attend NAI training sessions for early career scientists.  As others have mentioned, the chance to meet and develop relationships with future colleagues is invaluable.  Several other early career scientists that I work with now, I never would have met if it weren't for the NAI workshops/schools.  Astrobiology is an interdisciplinary field and I would not have had many opportunities to meet those in related fields to my own without the NAI training sessions.  Also being able to learn about research that early career scientists are doing across the globe is a wonderful experience. 

I also have extreme appreciation for the speakers that were invited to present. It is amazing to be able to learn about the current state of the field from the most informed and best experts in their fields.  Also, there is also nothing like learning about geology while you are actually standing on it.  Coming from an astronomy background originally, I didn't realize how important it was to actually study geology in the field until I did it.  The same could be said about actually making telescope observations, instead of just hearing about them.  

I also share the sentiment that there is no way I would have been able to attend these without funding.  It is sad to think about others would not have this opportunity.  Of course I realize budgets are limited, but this was one of the most influential and valuable experiences I was able to participate in as a graduate student, and I sincerely hope that others will continue to have this opportunity.  

I too was fortunate to have attended the NASA-Nordic 2011 Astrobiology Winter School in Hawai'i. As a PhD student by that time, I was yet defining what my future research line would be, and this particular School was simply instrumental in making this decision.

The theme of this course was the origins of water and life in the solar system and beyond, and given the excellent lectures, field trips and conversations that I had, I realized I could make a contribution in this field. Thus, I later focused on the relation of water and life on Earth, using the Atacama Desert, the driest and oldest on Earth as a model.

More importantly, these courses are not relevant just because the knowledge that you gain, but also because the contacts that are made, some of which in my case have resulted in research collaborations, publications, and even friends.

In my particular case it is important to note that as a Chilean scientist, we just do not have this kind of opportunities here, so having the chance of participating in well organized courses like this simply broaden our horizons in many unsuspected ways.

I hope these courses continue in the future, as the investment made in materializing them give dividends even after years after the actual course took place. The NASA Astrobiology Institute may want to consider that through these courses they are not only making possible for a group of people to meet in some place, but what they are really doing is establishing and strengthening the new generations of astrobiologists, increasing the critical mass of this field and thus, more supporters of future initiatives and funding. Going against this type of Schools in my humble opinion, is to undermine the basis of the entire community, as it will be the graduate students and the potential astrobiologists of the future the one who will be more affected.

I was fortunate to have attended the NASA-Nordic 2011 Astrobiology Winter School in Hawai'i. The theme of the course was the origins of water and life in the solar system and beyond. After introductory lessons on the fundamentals in various topics, we had a great selection of eminent researchers in astrobiology and planetary science teaching us about the latest research in their fields. We not only benefited from the expertise of individual scientists, but we also got a broad perspective on related topics. This was possible thanks to the efforts of the speakers who invested time into integrating their presentations into each other's lectures.

I gained immensely from the presentations and follow-on discussions on the source and inventory of water on Earth, the processes at hydrothermal systems, thermodynamics of microbial systems and evolutionary theory. These topics of direct relevance to my PhD research answered many of my long-standing queries and have sparked even more questions for me to pursue. My discussions led me to initiate a future collaboration with one of the lecturers, something that would not have been possible without the time we spent together at the school.

Throughout the two week course, the lectures were interspersed with exciting activities, all of which were highlights in their own respect. Feeling the radiant heat of molten lava, walking on 'zero-age' rocks, snorkelling in the reefs at the Institute of Marine Biology and enjoying an authentic Hawaiian Luau are going to be some of the most memorable moments of the trip. We visited the Mauna Kea Observatories and conducted observations using some of the world's best telescopes, albeit observing the telescope dome cover itself, as most of our scheduled nights were too cloudy or windy to do observations – we were indeed experiencing the true life of an astronomer! We kept busy into the late hours of the night with engaging discussions on topics ranging from mission planning and proposal writing to thoughtful re-evaluations of the Drake equation. Even light-hearted assessments of the scientific content in a Hollywood movie turned out to be rather educational activities.

The organisation of the winter school was no doubt a team effort where attention was paid to every detail. They successfully coordinated the substantial logistics involved with hosting such a large group and delivering a winter school with a very rewarding programme.

I hope the NAI, the University of Hawai'i, the Nordic Astrobiology Network and other funding partners can continue to offer such schools into future years. These schools are a perfect way for young astrobiologists-in-training to gain a basic understanding of the diverse sciences involved in astrobiology and appreciate the state of knowledge in fields outside our own. They help us in learning to communicate with colleagues across disciplines and engage with our peers in the growing astrobiology community.

Many thanks to all participants and organisers for the opportunity to be part of a wonderful experience! It remains one of my most memorable experiences during my PhD and is an opportunity worth sharing with others to inspire future budding astrobiologists.

I attended the 2005 Hawaii Astrobiology Winter school and the 2009 Iceland Astrobiology Summer school.  I attended the Hawaii school just a few months into starting my Ph.D., and it was my first formal introduction to astrobiology. I had just finished a Bachelor’s in astronomy and gone to get a Ph.D. in geology, at the time had no other student friends who shared my interests in astrobiology, and had no idea how to actually build my interdisciplinary science background into a career. In the Hawaii school, for the first time, I got to make connections with astronomers, geologists, and biologists from around the world all interested in astrobiology. The coherent presentation of many different science disciplines all relating to the same astrobiology questions really helped solidify in my mind how I could build a research career in this field. The professional network I began to form in Hawaii (and later in Iceland in 2009) has been a major part of my life ever since. The 2005 Hawaii school also jump-started my participation in the early-career astrobiology professional community, leading me to attend other astrobiology conferences / events during grad school which had a major impact on my research direction and career future.  I am still in frequent contact with other participants from both the Hawaii and Iceland schools, many of whom are still close friends / colleagues nearly ten years later.

The strong network built among the participants who attended these UHNAI-Nordic schools has been of huge benefit over the years, and I hope that future students will have these valuable opportunities as I did. Many of us were not in formal astrobiology graduate / undergraduate programs, and so the main source of networking and knowing about opportunities in astrobiology came from continued participation in these NAI-funded early career collaboration activities. The UHNAI-Nordic schools provide an intense two-week experience that is unique and extremely valuable for graduate students, and these schools should continue to be funded as they form a crucial piece of the early-career astrobiology professional development. 

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