If the term "astrobiology" suggests to you nothing more than half-baked musings on workings of the ubiquitous little green man, then think again. And quickly, because this newly emerging field is rapidly becoming one of the hottest topics in science. Described by a spokesperson from NASA's Astrobiology Institute as "a revolution that will require its own revolution," astrobiology draws on the expertise of astronomers and biologists, physicists, chemists, and geologists to understand the development of life in the universe. The Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology, which opened in November 2000, aims to spearhead the UK effort to answer such questions as "How did life begin and evolve on earth?," "What makes a planet habitable?," and "Can life travel between galaxies?"
A joint initiative between Cardiff University and the University of Wales College of Medicine, the centre is led by Chandra Wickramasinghe and Anthony Campbell, leading figures in astronomy and cell biology, respectively. They aim to unite research interests to shed light on how life began and developed on earth, other planetary bodies, and the cosmos at large. "The unique combination ... will provide Cardiff with a centre of excellence," says Professor Wickramasinghe, director of the centre. "It will give us the facility to contribute to space missions probing for life on solar system bodies."
Cardiff is no stranger to astrobiology, though this is the first time it has been housed as a separate discipline. Wickramasinghe and well known astronomer, writer, and populariser of science Sir Fred Hoyle, now an associate of the centre, pioneered a forerunner to modern astrobiology with their theory of "panspermia" in the 1970s. According to the theory, life began and evolved on Earth due to an influx of simple biological material and continued (and continues) to evolve under its influence. The "cosmic quality of microbiology," as Hoyle called it in a speech made in 1980, was paramount. Since then advances in astronomy, biology, and geology have gone some way to vindicating this point of view. Material in interstellar dust has been found to have spectroscopic properties consistent with the widespread occurrence of microbial life, and studies of meteorites from Mars have established that transfer of life between planets is feasible.
The centre will continue research in this vein, building on 25 years of expertise. Initial projects (both theoretical and practical) include seeking evidence for the existence of biomolecules and cells in the upper atmosphere, as well as in comets and interstellar dust; looking for evidence of biological molecules and processes in material recovered from space; and investigating the effect of space conditions on living systems. The latter, in particular, will have important repercussions for the study of space medicine.
Collaboration is key to the success of all of these projects: The Centre will share both expertise and equipment with biology, physics, maths, medicine, and computing departments, though it hopes to develop its own stockpile of experimental kit over time. There will also be some collaboration with international colleagues (most recently, the department partnered with the Indian government on a project that examines samples recovered from the upper atmosphere for signs of life). With such a breadth of know-how, staff are keen to encourage applications from young scientists from a range of disciplines. Being flexible, having initiative, and enjoying the challenge of continuous exposure to new ideas (often outside your expertise) are more important than possessing specific qualifications, though presumably astronomers, physicists, biochemists, and biologists will feel most at home here. "We are looking for good, enthusiastic, committed students--that's the key," says Campbell. "We can train them to do anything." Citing Frances Crick as a good example, Campbell highlights the opportunities for scientists to cross over from physical to life sciences and vice versa. "Physicists could move into cell biology or genetic engineering. ... biologists into astronomy." Life scientists in particular should not be put off by any new mathematics involved and would receive training in line with their research.
Someone who approached the field blind is Steve Coulson, a second-year Ph.D. student with a background in mathematics and theoretical physics. He confesses that "the awful truth is I didn't know anything about astrobiology until I started my Ph.D. I wanted to do a course in something mathematical connected with space and was interested in comets and asteroids." Knowing Wickramasinghe's reputation, he got in touch and was offered a Ph.D. After working on the organic composition of interstellar dust, Coulson has now turned his attention to meteoroids (solid objects in space, renamed meteors when they enter the earth's atmosphere). "After Christmas I wrote a paper about the Leonid meteors, which hopefully someone might publish, and now I'm working on the problem of micrometeors and how they behave." Undaunted by the breadth of knowledge astrobiology covers, Coulson finds the exposure to new ideas to be one of the great perks of the field: "from pure maths to chemistry ... you see a lot of different things." He has also found that moving further into a biologist's world "removes some of the naivety" of working on abstract computational problems. In terms of the future, Coulson intends to carry on with postdoc research, but he is keen to point out that he does not feel restricted in terms of career choice. Whilst many Ph.D.s leave students with a limited range of skills and a narrow specialisation, those in an interdisciplinary field such as astrobiology offer "lots of skills to market yourself with" when approaching the sticky task of post-Ph.D. job searching.
Though still part of the school of mathematics, the relatively small department (six part-time staff and one research student) has recently moved into its own premises and is set to grow. Applications are being encouraged for Ph.D. places, with one funded postdoctoral position already on offer with Wickramasinghe. Grant proposals with links to the European space programme are being made, and both NASA and the European Space Agency are eager to see applications from astrobiologists. As Campbell notes, things are still at the early stages: "At the moment the critical mass is generated by the interactions. We hope that very soon the department will have its own critical mass." So, if you think your mass can make a difference, now is the time to weigh in. Whatever you have to offer, astrobiology can probably find a place for you on its journey through the cosmos. Just don't expect a map.