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Program in Planets and Life


Adam S. Burrows

Executive Committee

Adam S. Burrows, Astrophysical Sciences

Christopher F. Chyba, Woodrow Wilson School, Astrophysical Sciences

Claire F. Gmachl, Electrical Engineering

Michael Hecht, Chemistry

N. Jeremy Kasdin, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Laura F. Landweber, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Tullis C. Onstott, Geosciences

Edwin L. Turner, Astrophysical Sciences

Robert J. Vanderbei, Operations Research and Financial Engineering

Unraveling the origins of life on Earth and determining whether life exists beyond the Earth will likely be the two of the most significant scientific discoveries in the 21st century. The Program in Planets and Life is an interdepartmental, multidisciplinary plan of study designed for students interested in these two questions. The goal is to provide students with an understanding of the fundamental astrophysical, chemical, biological, and geological principles and engineering challenges that will guide our search for life in extreme environments on Earth and on other planets and satellites in the solar system and among neighboring planetary systems. Research and teaching related to these topics are typically performed under the rubric of astrobiology. The program will equip participating students with the skills they will require to assume a leadership role in discovering the origins of terrestrial and extraterrestrial life over the next decades.  

The cooperating departments from which the Program in Planets and Life draws faculty and other resources include astrophysics, chemistry, ecology and evolutionary biology, electrical engineering, geosciences, mechanical and aerospace engineering, operations research and financial engineering, and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.  

Admission to the Program

The Program in Planets and Life is open to all A.B. and B.S.E. students. Interested students would normally take AST/CHM/EEB/GEO 255 in the spring semester of their sophomore year.

Program of Study

The following requirements are in addition to those of a student's department of concentration. By appropriate choice of courses, a student may satisfy the program and the concentration requirements, as well as University distribution requirements. Core course and cognate courses may not be taken on a pass/D/fail basis. 

1. Students must take the spring semester core course AST/CHM/EEB/GEO 255.
2. Students must take an additional four cognate courses. Only two of the cognate courses can be in the student's department of concentration. The cognate courses must be approved by the program director and students are encouraged to discuss their choices with the program director in the early stages of their planning.
3. Junior and seniors are expected to participate in a noncredit Planets and Life Undergraduate Colloquium that is designed to assist students in carrying out their junior independent work and senior thesis research, assist them with identifying resources, support them in their writing, and expose them to senior thesis research related to astrobiology that is being carried out in other departments on campus. Each student will present a report on their junior paper or senior thesis research to their classmates. In any given year the colloquium will be run by the program director or a member of the executive committee.
4. Both the program chairperson and the undergraduate representative in the student's department of concentration should approve independent work in the junior or senior years that involves astrobiology topics relevant to the certificate program. The relevant content of the student's senior thesis will be presented at a special planets and life poster session at the end of their senior year.
5. To qualify for the certificate the student must do at least one of their JP's on an astrobiology topic, or as part of their senior thesis must devote a chapter to an astrobiology topic, subject to approval by the program chairperson in consultation with executive committee members. Students should also participate in at least one semester of the Planets and Life Undergraduate Colloquium.

Certificate of Proficiency

Students who meet the requirements of the program and of their home department will receive a certificate of proficiency in planets and life upon graduation. 

Cognate Courses (Note: an asterisk indicates a one-time-only course.)

Astrophysical Sciences (AST)

204 Topics in Modern Astronomy
303 Astronomical Methods
301 Thermal Physics
403 Interstellar Medium and Star Formation
514 Stellar structure
541 Seminar in Theoretical Astrophysics (when appropriate)
542 Seminar in Observational Astrophysics

Chemical and Biological Engineering (CBE)

CHE 245 Introduction to Chemical Engineering Principles
CHE 446 Atmospheric Technology
CHE 447 Biochemical Engineering

Chemistry (CHM)

201 General Chemistry I or 202 General Chemistry II
207 Advanced General Chemistry: Materials Chemistry
215 Advanced General Chemistry: Honors Course
303 Organic Chemistry I: Biological Emphasis or 304 Organic Chemistry II: Biological Emphasis
305 The Quantum World
306 Physical Chemistry: Chemical Thermodynamics and Kinetics
405 Advanced Physical Chemistry: Quantum Mechanics
406 Advanced Physical Chemistry: Chemical Dynamics and Thermodynamics
407 Inorganic Chemistry: Structure and Bonding
408 Inorganic Chemistry: Reactions and Mechanisms
515 Biophysical Chemistry I
539 Introduction to Chemical Instrumentation
544 Metals in Biology (also ENV 544)

Computer Science (COS)

323 Computing for the Physical and Social Sciences Ecology and

Evolutionary Biology (EEB)

210 Evolutionary Ecology (also MOL 210)
211 The Biology of Organisms (also MOL 211)
309 Evolutionary Biology
330 Molecular Evolutionary Genetics (also MOL 330)

Electrical Engineering (ELE)

351 Electromagnetic Field Theory and Optics
352 Physical Optics
*455 Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment (also CEE/MAE/MSE 455)

Geosciences (GEO)

207 A Guided Tour of the Solar System (also AST 207)
363 Environmental Geochemistry: Natural Systems (also CHM 331, ENV 331)
364 Earth Chemistry: The Major Realms of the Planet (also CHM 364)
371 Global Geophysics (also PHY 371)
372 Earth Materials
374 Planetary Systems: Their Diversity and Evolution (also AST 374)
417 Environmental Microbiology (also CEE 417, EEB 417)
425 Introduction to Physical Oceanography (also MAE 425)
428 Biological Oceanography
442 Geodynamics (also PHY 442)
523 Geomicrobiology 

Molecular Biology

214 Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology (also EEB 214)
215 Quantitative Principles in Cell and Molecular Biology (also EEB 215)
345 Biochemistry (also CHM 345)
348 Cell and Developmental Biology

Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE)

341 Space Flight
342 Space System Design
345 Robotics and Intelligent Systems


GEO 255 Life in the Universe (also AST 255, EEB 255, CHM 255) Spring QR

Introduces students to a new field, astrobiology, where scientists trained in biology, chemistry, astronomy, and geology combine their skills to discover life's origins and seek extraterrestrial life. Topics include: discoveries of microbes in extreme environments on Earth that raise the prospect of life on Mars and Europa, a moon of Jupiter; and extra-solar planets that offer targets for NASA telescopes searching for life. Prerequisites: at least one course in astrophysics, biology, chemistry, physics, or geology. For freshmen, an AP score of 4 or 5 in chemistry, biology, or physics is required. Two 90-minute lectures.
T. Onstott, E. Turner, L. Landweber