2021 Exploration and Origins Colloquium

Explorigins Colloquium

Dear Astrobiology, Origins, and Space Enthusiasts,

The ExplOrigins early career group invites you to join the 2021 Exploration and Origins Colloquium! This virtual colloquium will have events spanning two days: 

Wednesday, February 17th: Poster Session 

Thursday, February 18th: Research talks and Mars 2020 Perserverance Landing viewing

Our aim is to highlight work involving space exploration; biological, geological, and astronomical origins; and astrobiology of any sub-field at Georgia Tech and beyond.

Through this colloquium, we hope to:

      • forge relationships between diverse individuals of various fields, experience levels, and backgrounds
      • expand our internal awareness of local work an dinnovations
      • encourage collaboration and interdisciplinary understanding
      • provide a professional growth opportunity for early career individuals including undergraduates, graduates, and post-docs

For registration and abstract submission, complete the form linked below by the end of the day on January 21st (see update below). Announcement of selected speakers and poster presentations will be made on January 25th.

Update: The abstract deadline has been extended to January 29th! Get those abstracts in!


2020 Explorigins Colloquium Research Abstracts

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Presentations | Posters

A selection of permitted presenter titles and abstracts have been published below.

Plenary Speakers

Dr. Christopher E. Carr

The synthesis of complex organic molecules, including the building blocks of life as we know it, occurs in stellar nebulas, in reducing planetary atmospheres, and through aqueous reaction networks. To the extent that this chemistry is universal, life elsewhere may also utilize amino acids, and nucleic acids or related informational polymers (IPs) for information storage and heredity.

Earth and Mars have exchanged an estimated billion tons of rock due to large meteorite impacts. If life exists on Mars, it could be related to us. Such an assumption is unlikely to hold for any life within Saturn’s moon Enceladus, or at Jupiter’s moon Europa. Here we describe progress towards life detection beyond Earth via single molecule sequencing of nucleic acids: a Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes (SETG). We also describe preliminary work to develop the Electronic Life-detection Instrument for Enceladus/Europa (ELIE), which would utilize nanogaps as a solid-state single molecule detector that is agnostic to the precise target chemical identity, extending detection capabilities from life as we know it to life as we don’t know it.

Dr. Mariel Borowitz

The field of astrobiology, with roots more than 100 years old, evolved quickly after the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). This talk explores how the evolution of the field was influenced not only by important developments in science and technology, but also by political and policy issues and decisions. It traces the development of the field over the last sixty years and ends with some discussion of new directions going forward.


Dr. Micah Schiable — Chemistry and Biochemistry

The distribution of material throughout our Solar System can place strong constraints on the possible dynamical and thermal histories of small bodies. Only by obtaining a measurement of the large-scale compositional distribution in various regions of the Solar System can questions regarding the origins and history of many small bodies begin to be addressed. Additionally, having a means to rapidly characterize the elemental compositions of bodies could help identify valuable resources for exploration and in situ resource utilization purposes.
The composition of bodies can only be loosely constrained using typical reflected light spectroscopy techniques. Although sample return is the best means of determine details of composition and formation conditions for bodies, it is costly, risky, and limited to a small number of sampling locations. A robust and sensitive technique for obtaining elemental composition of surfaces in high vacuum environments is the collection and analysis of secondary ions ejected due to solar wind and magnetosphere ion sputtering and meteorite impacts. First proposed for space based compositional analysis over 30 years ago [Managadze and Sagdeev, 1988; Johnson and Baragiola, 1991], this technique is commonly known in the laboratory as SIMS and can achieve excellent signal to noise ratios due to low ion backgrounds and high detection sensitivities achievable. Additionally, SIMS measurements at small bodies can help resolve whether these bodies harbor any potentially valuable resources for future exploration missions and how the composition of rocky asteroids varies throughout the Solar System.

Kelvin Smith — Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

My research focuses on the investigation of the relevant kinetic mechanisms of chiral depsipeptide polymerization and degradation. Once these depsipeptide mechanisms are identified, you can predict behavior of similar peptides used to create biopolymers for pharmaceutical purposes such as drug delivery and tissue engineering. The model provides helpful predictions for future synthesis of other depsipeptides, and it consists of a complex Kinetic Monte Carlo (KMC) framework that simulates growth and degradation of chiral depsipeptides. To use the framework, rate constants of relevant mechanisms must be known a priori through either experimental data or a literary search. To investigate the kinetic mechanisms of ester reactions in depsipeptides, high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) data of two test molecules are collected and quantified at different pH values and temperatures: multiple oligomers of an HO-dipeptide called glycolic acid alanine (gA) and a methylated molecule of the gA dimer called propionic acid alanine glycolic acid alanine ((PA)AgA). I model and simulate the evolution and degradation of gA using MATLAB to extract rate constants. These degradation rate constants come from a novel model structure that describes two hypothesized mechanisms: scission and backbiting. I perform statistical procedures to determine how good the model fits are to the data, how likely one mechanism describes a model over another, and how confident we can be in the predicted values. Preliminary results show that both scission and backbiting rate constants of the gA oligomers and (PA)AgA follow an Arrhenius relationship and that backbiting is a dominant degradation mechanism at basic pH values in gA oligomers. When the rate constants were plotted against pH, similar behavior can be found in the literature.

Petar Penev — Biological Sciences

The ribosome’s common core connects all life back to a common ancestor and serves as a window to relationships among organisms. In eukaryotes, the common core contains expansion segments (ES’s) that vastly increase ribosomal RNA size. Supersized ES’s have not been observed previously in Bacteria or Archaea, and the origin of eukaryotic ES’s remains enigmatic. We discovered that the large subunit rRNA of Lokiarchaeota, the closest modern cell lineage to the last common ancestor of Archaea and Eukarya, bridges the gap in size between prokaryotic and eukaryotic rRNA. The long large subunit rRNA in Lokiarchaeota is largely due to the presence of two eukaryotic-like, supersized ES’s, ES9 and ES39, which are transcribed in situ. We applied computational models, covariation analysis, and chemical footprinting experiments to study the structure and evolution of Lokiarchaeota ES9 and ES39. We also defined the eukaryotic ES39 fold for comparison. We found that Lokiarchaeota and eukaryotic ES’s are structurally distinct: Lokiarchaeota ES39 has more and longer helices than the eukaryotic ES39 fold. Despite their structural differences, we found that Lokiarchaeota and eukaryotic ES’s originated from a common ancestor that was “primed” for evolution of larger and more complex rRNAs than those found in Bacteria and other archaea.

Dr. Anthony Burnetti

Phototrophy – the ability of a cell to capture light energy for metabolism – is responsible for the vast majority of biomass production and metabolic flux on Earth, and its origin represents an extremely important evolutionary transition. This capability has evolved independently exactly twice in Earth’s history, via chlorophototrophic and retinalophototrophic machinery. Close examination of the properties of these metabolic pathways reveals them to be remarkably complementary in their chemical makeup and ecological roles, suggesting that their properties are the result of ancient ecological interactions between incumbent and novel phototrophs filling initially vacant ecological niches rather than being the random results of rare, difficult innovations. Each origin of phototrophy has filled a particular niche in the tradeoff between efficiency per unit light and efficiency per unit protein infrastructure, and has suppressed the evolution of novel machineries like themselves while failing to suppress each other due to their fundamental architectural differences.

As a “dual evolutionary singularity”, phototrophy can also be used as a touchstone to understand the dynamics of major evolutionary innovations and transitions in the history of life on Earth. Many innovations, such as the singular origin of eukaryotes or the origin of life itself, occurred exactly once and transformed the planet. Others, like the evolution of multicellularity, have occurred many times. This could be due to some innovations being intrinsically rare or difficult, or evolutionary singularities could be singular as a result of ecological interactions by first-movers suppressing innovation by other lineages. The example of phototrophy suggests that many of these singularities could be simpler to evolve than they seem, and could be common in other biospheres.

Aaron Pital

The pace of publication in the sciences has long since outstripped human ability to read and synthesize information. While interdisciplinary work can mitigate some of this burden, there remain fundamental questions about whether attentional blindness and the opportunity cost of reaching beyond the comfort of one’s expertise hold back innovation in speculative fields such as the origins of life. We present a brief model of associative information in scientific publication and propose tools derived from information theory, natural language processing, and data science to search for physical and chemical contexts embedded in literature from fields as diverse and non-traditional as soil science and drug design. The goals of these efforts are 1) to identify physical and chemical information of interest to origins of life researchers which would otherwise be unlikely to rise to the community’s attention and 2) to define rules for correlated information generally to improve literature cataloging, referencing and retrieval.

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2020 Explorigins Colloquium Poster Abstracts

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Presentations | Posters


Poster No. Name Poster Title Department Exploration or Origins?
1 Anna Simpson Landscape Ecology Applied to Astrobiology: Lessons learned from FELDSPAR Chemistry and Biochemistry Exploration
2 Bhanu Kumar Computation and Analysis of Invariant Tori Near Resonances in the Planar Elliptic Restricted Three-Body Problem Mathematics Exploration
3 Bridget Wiley VERNE: Thermal Management System Aerospace Engineering Exploration
4 Frances Bryson Initial Design & Considerations for the Vertical Entry Robot for Navigating Europa (VERNE) Sample Handling System Mechanical Engineering Exploration
5 Frances Bryson Vertical Entry Robot for Navigating Europa: Initial Design of Vehicle Structures Mechanical Engineering Exploration
6 Kenneth Seaton Examining Organic Biomarker Survivability in Enceladus Plume Capture Conditions using Laser-Induced Projectile Impact Testing Chemistry and Biochemistry Exploration
7 Mohamed Nassif Drill Design Considerations for Use on Europa Aerospace Engineering Exploration
8 Philip Szot Vertical Entry Robot for Navigating Europa – Systems Team Aerospace Engineering Exploration
9 Sara Pierson Vertical Entry Robot for Navigating Europa (VERNE): Communications and Data Handling Aerospace Engineering Exploration
10 Ashley Hanna Science System for Vertical Entry Robot for Navigating Europa (VERNE) Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Exploration/Origins
11 Abigail Johnson Potential Life Strategies in Gas Clathrates Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Origins
12 Ayanna Jones Utilizing Systems Analysis to Understand the Chemical Language of the Rhizosphere Chemistry and Biochemistry Origins
13 Brooke Rothschild-Mancinelli Understanding Containment: Life Unbounded? Chemistry and Biochemistry Origins
14 Jay Haynes Structure and Activity of the Ancestral Ribosome Chemistry and Biochemistry Origins
15 Martin C Acylated Peptide Building Blocks Polymerize to Form Supramolecular Assemblies in Response to Environmental Cycling Chemistry and Biochemistry Origins
16 Rebecca Guth-Metzler Probing ancestral ribosomal iron utilization through Fe2+ in-line cleavage Chemistry and Biochemistry Origins
17 Tyler Roche Robust Ribonucleosides: A Pathway to Ribose from Simple Sugars via Ketose Intermediates Chemistry and Biochemistry Origins
18 Vahab Rajaei Polymer Evolution using Alkyl Alcohols in the Absence of Water Chemistry and Biochemistry Origins
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Code of Conduct


This code of conduct outlines our expectations for participants in ExplOrigins events, as well as steps to reporting unacceptable behavior. We are committed to working to provide a welcoming, safe, and inspiring community for all and expect our code of conduct to be honored. Anyone who violates this code of conduct may be asked to leave an event.


1. Participation Guidelines

In following the code of conduct, you should keep the following expectations about behavior in mind, which are essential for creating a welcoming and safe environment:

  • Physical, sexual, and verbal harassment are unacceptable.
  • Do not discriminate against people because of their identity (e.g. race, gender, sexuality, age, class background, ability, religion, and more).
  • We expect participants to work together to create a welcoming, inclusive, and safe(r) environment for people from diverse backgrounds.

You should take the time to read about what constitutes harassment and discrimination in our full Code of Conduct (below). However, here are some rules of thumb to keep in mind when checking whether you are putting the Code of Conduct into practice:

Ask for consent (i.e. permission) and respect people’s boundaries.

Ask for permission before you engage in physical interactions with participants. This applies to everything from friendly interactions, such as asking “Can I hug you?” before you hug someone, to sexual attention and/or sexualized physical contact at conference social events or after hours, off-site. If you ask someone’s permission and they indicate no, respect that and don’t continue. Sexual harassment (including verbal comments or gestures) is unacceptable, including online, at conference social events, and during event after-hours.

Be considerate in your interactions with others and careful about the words you use. Is the language that you’re using discriminatory?

There is a lot of everyday language which discriminates against people, and interactions that seem harmless from one perspective may perpetuate bias when viewed from another. We ask that participants be thoughtful in the language you use and avoid using terms or phrases that—overtly or implicitly—discriminate against minorities such as people of color, LGBTQ+ people, or those with disabilities. We also ask that community members are sensitive to microaggressions[i] and unconscious bias. If someone calls you out for using problematic language or microaggressions, please take the time to listen, apologize, and put effort into not using the language again. You may be asked to leave the community for using this kind of language.

Be mindful of how much time and space you’re taking up. Be aware of the dynamics of power and privilege, and whether you’re taking advantage of it.

Are you taking up a disproportionate amount of time for questions or discussion? Are you giving a chance for participants from an underrepresented country or a marginalized group to speak? Are you attempting to engage in a physical or intimate interaction with someone who doesn’t have the capacity to consent (e.g. at an evening social event with alcohol)? Are you taking the time to listen to the perspectives of those who are different from you? We ask that participants be considerate of how their actions shape the community and create space for others to participate fully themselves.


2. Anti-Harassment Policy

We value your participation. We do not tolerate harassment of ExplOrigins members in any form. ExplOrigins members asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately.

Our Code of Conduct and Anti-Harassment Policy extend to all aspects of ExplOrigins where individuals’ behavior affects the ability of others to participate. This includes online interactions and communication platforms (e.g. Slack), as well as “after hours” gatherings, including evening social events. All participants, including sponsors, are subject to the anti-harassment policy.

If needed, ExplOrigins will provide information for participants to contact local law enforcement and will also make efforts to provide escorts or otherwise assist those experiencing harassment to feel safe, at the request of a participant. A full list of potential sanctions is provided below.


3. Harassment Definitions

For purposes of this code of conduct, sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when such conduct interferes with an individual’s ability to participate in ExplOrigins events or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.

Some examples of sexual harassment include (but are not limited to):

  • Unwelcome and repeated flirtations, propositions, advances, or other sexual attention—including gratuitous or off-topic sexual images or behavior
  • Unwelcome physical contact 
  • Whistling
  • Looking at someone in a way that makes them uncomfortable
  • Improper gestures
  • Use of stereotypes 
  • Offensive, insulting, derogatory, or degrading remarks
  • Unwelcome comments about appearance 
  • Sexual jokes or use of sexually explicit or offensive language 
  • Gender- or sex-based pranks 
  • Display of sexually suggestive objects or pictures
  • Demands for sexual favors in exchange for favorable or preferential treatment

Other harassment is defined as verbal or physical conduct that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual because of their race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, personal appearance, political affiliation, marital status, family responsibilities, veteran status, matriculation, disability, mental illness, neuro(a)typicality, or any other legally protected status, and that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment for participation or unreasonably interferes with an individual’s ability to participate in the community.

Some examples of other harassment include (but are not limited to):

  • Offensive comments related to gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, mental illness, neuro(a)typicality, physical appearance, body size, race, age, regional discrimination, lifestyle, political or religious affiliation
  • Using epithets or slurs
  • Mocking, ridiculing, or mimicking another’s culture, accent, appearance, or custom
  • Deliberate misgendering. This includes deadnaming[ii] or persistently using a pronoun that does not correctly reflect a person’s gender identity. Address people by the name on their name tag (or by their username or handle, if appropriate) unless they invite you to refer to them by another name.
  • Threats of violence, both physical and psychological
  • Deliberate intimidation
  • Incitement of violence towards any individual, including encouraging a person to commit suicide or to engage in self-harm
  • Physical contact and simulated physical contact without consent or after a request to stop
  • Stalking or following
  • Harassing photography or recording, including logging online activity for harassment purposes
  • Continued one-on-one communication after requests to cease
  • Deliberate “outing” of any aspect of a person’s identity without their consent except as necessary to protect others from intentional abuse
  • Publication of non-harassing private communication

We will not act on complaints regarding reverse-isms (e.g. reverse racism, reverse sexism), reasonable communication of boundaries (such as “leave me alone”), refusal to explain or debate topics, or criticism of ‘tone’ or oppressive behavior.


4. Reporting Issues

If you experience or witness unacceptable behavior—or have any other concerns—please report the issue by the means described below. 

If you experience or witness behavior that violates the code of conduct, please either speak directly to one of the ExplOrigins organizers or submit a report using THIS FORM. Alternatively, you may also submit reports directly to the organizers at gtexplorigins@gmail.com. Georgia Tech faculty member Jennifer Glass has agreed to assist ExplOrigins in enforcing this code when appropriate. All reports will be handled with discretion.

If you are more comfortable submitting a report anonymously, simply do not include your name and contact information in the form linked above. We will do our best to respond to the situation, and reports submitted anonymously are taken seriously; however, submitting anonymously may inhibit the committee’s ability to take specific action.

In your report, please do your best to include:

  • Your contact information
  • Identifying information of the participant who has violated the code of conduct
  • The behavior that was in violation
  • The approximate time of the behavior (if different than the time the report was made)
  • Where the code of conduct violation happened
  • The circumstances surrounding the incident
  • Other people involved in or witness to the incident
  • If you believe the incident is ongoing, please let us know
  • If there is a publicly available record (e.g. mailing list record), please include a link, or any relevant documentation
  • Any additional helpful information


5. How We Respond to Reports

Responses to reports are decided by the ExplOrigins organizers.

After a report is submitted, the incident will be documented, the ExplOrigins organizers will be notified, and the person making the report will be contacted (if possible) to confirm the report, gather more information, and determine how the person making the report can be best supported. All reports will be investigated to the extent the details provided allow. The organizers will meet to discuss the report and decide what actions to take, in consultation with the person making the report, if known, and in as timely a manner as possible. During this part of the process, we will do our best to protect your confidentiality, if you wish your report to be confidential; however, reporting an incident anonymously or wishing not to disclose key details (e.g. the name of the person being reported) may inhibit the committee’s ability to take action. Once appropriate actions are determined by the committee, they will be communicated to the person who violated the code of conduct and the person making the report.

Actions in response to reports can range from warnings with instructions on how to correct behavior that violated the code of conduct to immediate removal from ExplOrigins events, online communities (e.g. email lists, Slack), and future engagement.

If you have concerns with the process provided (or if the process is unclear), you can contact ExplOrigins at the means described above, and the committee will make efforts to provide support.


The following is a list of potential sanctions for anyone who violates the code of conduct, depending on the severity of the violation. The sanctions will be decided by the ExplOrigins organizers:

  • Warning the accused to cease their behavior and that further reports may result in sanctions
  • Ending a talk that violates the policy early
  • Not allowing a speaker who violated the policy to give (further) talks at the event
  • Immediately ending any event volunteer responsibilities and privileges the accused holds
  • Requiring that the accused not volunteer for future events (either indefinitely or for a certain time period)
  • Requiring that the accused immediately leave the event and not return
  • Banning the accused from future events (either indefinitely or for a certain time period)
  • Being banned or blocked on online community platforms, e.g. Slack
  • Being reported to the proper authorities


6. Questions

For additional guidance of codes of conduct in general, you may find Ashe Dryden’s introduction to codes of conduct and frequently asked questions helpful.

This code was adapted with permission from the 7th Annual Southeastern Biogeochemistry Symposium, which was an adaption from the OpenCon2018 code of conduct: https://www.opencon2018.org/code_of_conduct


[i] Microaggressions are the brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group. 

Adapted from Sue, D. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, p.5.

[ii] Deadnaming refers to someone who has changed their name by their previous name