Becoming an astrobiologist - one scientist's perspective
I am asked by a lot of students wanting to know how to become an astrobiologist, what degrees to get, what courses to take, what schools to go to. Let me preface that all I’m going to say below is my own personal opinion, and is not sanctioned by any person or organization. It is my perspective from having discovered astrobiology halfway through my university studies and being a professional astrobiologist today.
All students that want to become astrobiologist are in luck because almost any scientific path (whether in science, technology, engineering or mathematics) can make you an astrobiologist! In fact, disciplines in the humanities are also integral to astrobiology, such as sociology and philosophy. Realistically though, some sort of technical skill is critical to become a successful astrobiologist. If you do decide to follow the humanities path, make sure you complement your education with computer programming and/or statistics.
From my perspective, astrobiology is more an area of research than a core discipline. Astrobiology research surrounds the broad theme of “life in the Universe”. Because of this broad investigative path, every astrobiologist is different! Think of astrobiology as a “mindset”, a “way of thinking” that is not rooted in a particular discipline. Rather, it is rooted in research questions that a single discipline cannot possibly answer. It is a scientific framework, a “common thread”, where scientists from a broad range of disciplines come together to answer what are some of humankind’s most profound questions.
These scientists must be conversant in disciplines other than their own. Being conversant in a field other than your own will inherently make you a great communicator of science, which in itself is an asset for whatever career you choose. In my view, astrobiologists are some of the best science communicators out there.
To illustrate this trans-disciplinary research approach, consider a penultimate question that astrobiologists will debate long into the night at scientific conferences: “How common is life in the Universe?” To even begin answering such a question, they will have to answer a vast array of questions, with the only the fewest shown here:
- “How common are planets around other stars?”
- “How common are planets that could host liquid water?”
- “What are the environmental limits of life on Earth and do they apply
- “What energy sources fuel biology in extreme environments?”
- “How does life emerge from non-biological matter?”
- “What signatures can betray the presence of life on a planet?”
Such questions can continue down to arguably the most difficult of them all: “what is life?” You see, a physicist alone could not answer all these questions, nor could an evolutionary biologist or an engineer. Together however the physicist could put forward a theorem on how information is transferred in biological systems. The evolutionary biologist could recreate in the lab a scenario where information (as DNA for example) is transferred from a parent to a daughter cell, and the engineer could develop the instrumentation necessary to measure that information. The philosopher would investigate the ethics of genetically engineering a biological system, and whether such a system would still be called “life”.
And astrobiology may be happening near you! Check out these organizations and universities, and hopefully there is one near you. Astrobiologists are the curious types, so for all of you in University or deciding which courses to take, a universal advice I can offer is broaden your mind! Take courses outside your discipline. For example, as an engineer, take a geology class! As a geologist, take a biology class! Astrobiologists are inherently multi-disciplinary, and the new generation will become more trans-disciplinary. Your academic advisor will likely have great suggestions, even if your University does not offer Astrobiology.
Also, there are great books out there to learn about astrobiology, from the straightforward overview to the thorough textbook. In the popular press, find books by authors Carl Sagan, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Peter Ward to start with. Your curious nose will lead you to the works of many other talented authors.