The Next Stage of Evolution for Careers in Astrobiology: Georgia Tech ExplOrigins Group

October 30, 2020 | Atlanta, GA

One of the missions of the Georgia Tech Astrobiology community is to study the development of life on Earth and beyond — a community that has itself evolved quite a bit since its unofficial introduction in 2017.

One of the group’s first big public get-togethers was that summer’s DragonCon, the annual celebration of sci-fi and fantasy-based pop culture that dominates downtown Atlanta during Labor Day weekend. There, a panel of Georgia Tech researchers, most from the College of Sciences, wowed a crowd of “Marvel Comics” cosplayers and “Doctor Who” enthusiasts with the latest news on possible habitable worlds in the universe — and new findings on how life could have begun on Earth. 

Things progressed rapidly after that. Georgia Tech hosted the 2018 AbGradCon (Astrobiology Graduate Conference), an annual gathering of early career scientists. That same year, it began hosting an annual early spring colloquium, with lectures and presentations from students, postdocs and a slate of invited guest speakers. Then in 2019, Georgia Tech added a Graduate Certificate in Astrobiology for graduate students — one of only six campuses in the country to offer such an option. 

Now, with our strange 2020 drawing to a close, the community has added another level to its offerings and outreach: the ExplOrigins (Exploration and Origins) Group, which the Georgia Tech Astrobiology website describes as “an interest and discussion group with a goal to bring together young researchers with a needfully diverse set of backgrounds to discuss and explore all variety of recent topics pertaining to the origins and evolution of life, the exploration of our Solar System, and the search for habitable planets beyond Earth.”

ExplOrigins also wants to expand the astrobiology community to include researchers from the greater Atlanta area, and to serve as a networking resource for those seeking help with projects or employment opportunities. 

Boosting the astro in astrobiology

Micah Schaible, a research scientist in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, dreamed up the ExplOrigins Group while a graduate student in various Georgia Tech NASA-funded projects. 

Schaible, who received his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in applied physics from the University of Virginia, shares that his eyes opened to the scene after coming to Georgia Tech. 

“When I got here I was really excited about the much stronger community of researchers in planetary sciences and astrobiology then we had at UVA,” Schaible says. “So I was excited to get involved with other students, postdocs, and professors within this broad sort of field of astrobiology.”

Schaible, who received a B.S. in engineering at Montana Tech University, also saw a need to boost the aeronautics and space mission side of astrobiology at Georgia Tech. “There were a lot of people doing interesting biology, the communities where microorganisms are growing under extreme conditions,” he says. “But I have a background in physics, and yeah, we need missions looking at the prebiotic evolution of our solar system to understand the conditions in which life originated.”

“We saw this gap for early career researchers,” adds Rebecca Guth-Metzler, a doctoral candidate also in Chemistry/Biochemistry. “There wasn’t a lot of crosstalk despite the fact that there are so many young researchers or early career scientists at Georgia Tech who are really into astrobiology and space exploration. We reached out to the community to say: hey, we want to start this group where we meet with other young researchers and have these discussions.”

At NASA Astrobiology, “NAIs” evolve into “RCNs”

Guth-Metzler received a B.S. in molecular biology at Penn State, so she’s obviously on the “bio” side of astrobiology. But she shares that she recognizes the importance of working with scientists in other disciplines to extend discovery in the field. 

“ExplOrigins is reaching across disciplines and experience levels inside and outside of Georgia Tech to build a space for the cross-pollination of ideas,” she says. “By bringing diverse voices to the table, we learn how to communicate with one another to navigate and lead the future direction of astrobiology, space exploration, and origin of life studies.”

And while NASA-funded astrobiology projects at Georgia Tech such as SSERVI (the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute) will continue, the space agency has rebranded its NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) program, now known as Research Coordination Networks (RCNs). At Georgia Tech, these include the Prebiotic Chemistry and Early Earth Environment Consortium (PCE3), the Center for the Origin of Life (COOL), and Oceans Across Space and Time (OAST).

ExplOrigins members have already begun planning for their next annual spring colloquium, scheduled for Feb. 18-19, 2021. The format of that gathering depends on how the next few months of the pandemic go. The group currently meets every Monday via video calls, and members aren’t letting Covid-19 halt ExplOrigins’ plans for continuing to expand Georgia Tech Astrobiology to other disciplines and students. 

“We want to offer all of these different disciplines, even things outside of science and engineering — maybe bringing in artists who want to portray our message through art; maybe having people in policy, who work on legislation that would impact space exploration,” Guth-Metzler says. “We do have a good number of graduates and postdocs attendees in our meetings, but we want to open it up to undergraduates who are interested in these topics, and sort of span a whole range of people in their early levels."