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Stanford Report, August 9, 2000

Campus is host to NASA's summer Astrobiology Academy


When Matthew Reyes of Florida told his parents he wanted to attend the NASA Astrobiology Academy in California this summer, they were bewildered.

"Their first response was, 'Huh?'" he recalls. "My dad said, 'There are no aliens from outer space!'"

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Reyes, who majors in environmental horticulture at the University of Florida, patiently explained to his parents that astrobiology is a legitimate science devoted to studying life in the universe.

He pointed out that most astrobiologists have doctorates in fields such as chemistry, physics and astronomy. They do not search for alien beings in flying saucers but rather for evidence of bacteria-size organisms on places like Mars and the moons of Jupiter.

It did not take Reyes long to convince his parents that the Astrobiology Academy would be the ideal place for him to begin pursuing his lifetime ambition: space travel.

"I've always wanted to be an astronaut, ever since I was a kid," he says, noting that the academy allows him to rub shoulders with some of America's top researchers in space science.

Reyes is one of only 13 college students accepted into the 2000 Astrobiology Academy. The intensive 10-week program started on June 19 and ends Aug. 25.

Students live together on campus at Phi Sig House. The university has hosted the academy since its first session in the summer of 1997.

A typical day begins early in the morning, when students pile into a van for a 20-minute ride from Stanford to the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field.

Each student is assigned to work with a NASA scientist doing actual research on sophisticated projects ranging from the effects of gravity on plants to the search for organic molecules in space.

After working in a laboratory for several hours, students return to the Phi Sig House to rest, study and attend informal evening lectures by leading aerospace researchers in Northern California.

"The overall goal is to encourage interest in science and space in particular," says Bruce Lusignan, associate professor of electrical engineering, who serves as Stanford's official sponsor for the academy.

Lusignan directs an international planning effort for cooperative exploration of Mars and has held informal lectures at the academy.

"We think our students are the best in the country," says academy director Douglas A. O'Handley.

Those wanting to attend must apply to the NASA National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program in their home state, the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico. Each state or region selects its own finalists, and those names are submitted to a panel of reviewers at NASA Ames.

To qualify, an applicant must be a junior, senior or first-year graduate student with a strong record in academics and leadership.

"We received 72 applications from 31 states for the 2000 academy," notes O'Handley, "and we chose 13 students from 13 different states."

The current class has a grade point average of 3.75 and includes students from MIT, Yale, UCLA Medical School, the University of Hawaii and Virginia Tech.

"Astrobiology is a new science," says Carol Paty, a senior majoring in physics and astronomy from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

"It's a true multidisciplinary science," she notes, incorporating everything from biochemistry to engineering and evolution.

On July 20, Paty and her fellow students gave midterm presentations describing the status of their research projects five weeks into the summer session.

Paty has been working with two NASA scientists on the question of whether Martian dust holds enough liquid water to sustain microbial life.

The title of her presentation was "Water Stability on Mars: Me and My Pet Rocks."

In addition to many hours spent in the laboratory, students also get to visit corporations and other California aerospace research centers -- including Stanford.

"The kids really like the university," observes O'Handley, noting that several students decided to enroll in graduate school at Stanford following their summer experience.

Those accepted to the academy do not have to worry about cost. The state Space Grant Consortium gives each student up to $5,000 to cover round-trip transportation to and from California. NASA Ames contributes another $13,000 per student for food, lodging and other living expenses.

The cost is worth it, says O'Handley, noting that a principal goal of the academy is to produce future leaders of the U.S. space program.

"You get to meet people with connections in the space industry, and that makes it really unique," says Andrew Hock, an astrophysics major from Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.

"There's a lot of hard research that gives back to the public," he adds. "It's not just looking for little green men." SR