RiboEvo Students attend AbGradCon 2012

AbGradCon (short for “Astrobiology Graduate Conference”) is a yearly conference, organized by and geared towards early career scientists working in the relatively young, diverse field of astrobiology. This year, the conference was held from August 27th-30th at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, amongst buildings named for some of the most renowned scientists of the last century. Unlike AbSciCon, which took place at Georgia Tech a few months earlier, AbGradCon does not have parallel sessions, so all attendees are exposed to research across the broad spectrum of fields that fall under the wide-reaching umbrella of astrobiology.

Three members of the Center for Ribosomal Origins and Evolution (RiboEvo) were invited to give oral presentations at AbGradCon this year. Jessica Bowman, a research technician in the Williams lab, presented research on advanced PCR techniques which she has used to recombine and permutate DNA genes in controlled ways to generate a huge variant library of large subunit ribosomal RNAs. Tim Lenz, a Ph.D. candidate in the Williams lab, gave an oral presentation on the efforts of the Williams lab to resurrect and characterize an ancestor of the modern ribosomal large subunit. Lively Lie, a graduate student in the Wartell lab, presented her efforts to characterize ribozymes in the presence of iron(II), which would have been prevalent on the early earth, prior to the great oxidation event. Sessions directly relevant to RiboEvo included “Metabolism and Evolution”, “Extremophiles and Adaptations”, and “Prebiotic Chemistry.” Other sessions on topics such as “Exoplanets and Organics in Space”, “Planetary Habitability”, and “Earth Analogs and Biosignatures” rounded out the conference to give a broader scope of the search for life elsewhere in the universe.  Most of the presentations were broadcast online on saganet.org, and are now archived there (http://saganet.org/group/abgradcon2012-los-angeles).

Three undergraduates also participated remotely in a high school/undergrad poster session at AbGradCon. Spencer Hoskyns, an undergraduate researcher in the Williams lab, answered questions about his poster from AbGradCon attendees over Skype. Lucrece Tiengwe and Phillip Link, two summer exchange students in the Williams lab at Georgia Tech, also presented posters on their research. All three posters were hosted on-site by Williams lab member Jessica Bowman. The posters were judged by attendees at the conference, and Lucrece’s poster was awarded third place! The posters were also hosted online as part of an online poster session (http://qui.lt/event/8136/?k=U7YlP4FsYF).

The last day of the conference included a site visit to the NASA JPL laboratories, where attendees toured the development facilities of the A.T.H.L.E.T.E. six-legged cargo robot, and heard presentations from mission specialists involved in the development of the recently-landed Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) and various other JPL research projects.


Tim Lenz and Lively Lie also participated in the AbGradCon Research Focus Group (RFG), a proposal-writing workshop that took place before the conference. The RFG was held on Catalina Island, at the USC Marine Science Center from August 24th-26th. Participants worked in groups to prepare proposals to respond to modified NASA ROSES calls, including technical sections, fully itemized budgets, and citations of relevant literature. The proposals were peer-reviewed, and each group gave a short presentation to the rest of the attendees. The workshop also included an enlightening presentation from NAI program director Michael New.

Overall, AbGradCon was an excellent opportunity for those involved to interact with fellow early career astrobiologists, and to gain new perspective on what it means to work in this broad, unique field. It also provided the rare treat of hearing about exciting, bleeding-edge research from the individuals that are actually performing it. In fact, Jessica Bowman and Tim Lenz were you so inspired by the scientific passion and curiosity they witnessed at the conference that they have volunteered to assist in the organization of AbGradCon 2013.

-TIm Lenz