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Astrobiology Winter School

by Bo Reipurth and Karen Meech

participants in the Astrobiology Winter School

The students and faculty of the Astrobiology Winter School gathered for a picture in the IfA Manoa courtyard.

In June 2003, NASA selected a multidisciplinary group of researchers at UH as one of 16 teams in the United States to study a new discipline, astrobiology (see "Na Kilo Hoku" no. 10). From the beginning, we decided that in addition to research projects, we would also teach the next generation of researchers in astrobiology.

Astrobiology is a cross-disciplinary field that straddles the boundaries of stellar astronomy, planetary science, oceanography, meteoritics, biology, and geobiochemistry, to mention just a few. Each field is highly specialized with its own literature, jargon, and traditions, which can seem baffling, if not forbidding, to someone from the outside.

To bridge these disciplines, we decided to hold an astrobiology "winter school" every other year. We set three goals: The first is to provide the upcoming generation of researchers the opportunity to learn from the best of the current senior researchers in the field. Secondly, we want to give the young people an opportunity to meet and get to know each other. Personal bonds developed at a young age tend to be strong and long lasting, and so the schools will, with time, generate ties within the field of astrobiology that cross national and cultural boundaries. Our third goal is to, by a judicious choice of topics, break down artificial boundaries between narrow disciplines, foster cross-fertilization, and instill a deeply rooted understanding of how the many subdisciplines of astrobiology are all part of one larger question.

From January 10 to 21, the IfA hosted 39 graduate students and young researchers from across the United States and from several other countries and from a wide range of disciplines. Topics during the first week, held at IfA Manoa, included "Water Ice and Chemistry in Circumstellar Disks and the Interstellar Medium" and "Geochemical Processes and Micro-biospheres in Hydrothermal Systems." The second week, held at IfA Hilo, covered "Ice on Earth, Mars, and Europa" and "Icy Bodies in the Solar System and the Origin of the Earth's Oceans." The weekend in between gave the students a chance to swim, tour Volcanoes National Park, and visit Mauna Kea. After two intense weeks, the students scattered across the globe, now bonded by their unique Hawaiian experience.