Want to Eventually Pursue Astrobiology, Should I Major in Astronomy and Minor in Biology?

Hello! I currently just finished my first year of college at a liberal arts college where I am majoring in astrophysics and getting an international relations certificate. I recently became more aware of the field of astrobiology and believe that the work environment/research/study of material will fit me better than astrophysics (especially since I do not enjoy coding that much). I am now thinking that I will pursue an astronomy major (which still involves astrophysics) and a biology minor along with my international relations certificate (which is a common program at my college and satisfies my interest in foreign policy). I am wondering if a major in astronomy and a minor in biology will be able to lead me down the path of eventually getting a Ph.D. in astrobiology? Before getting my Ph.D. I would want to get a master’s degree in either biology or planetary science/astronomy, however, I am worried I won’t be able to get a master’s degree in a section of biology if I only minored in it. I want to double major in biology and astronomy, but at my college, it is not possible to complete a second major in addition to biology or even certain minors due to the level of requirements associated with the biology major. Any advice about what I should consider for my major or career would be greatly appreciated- thank you!

Astrobiology is a field in biology more than in astronomy, though a background in astrophysics would be helpful. Studying extremophiles is likely the best background for astrobiology, as well as landscape ecology, or another field which studies biological processes by looking at emissions by biological entities.

The contribution of astrophysics to astrobiology is in figuring out the physical conditions on a planet, and testing for signals which could indicate life. The biologists are the ones who figure out whether life could exist in those conditions, and are the ones who try to figure out what are the signals that indicate life.

So, to be a astrobiologist, you will need to move to biology, and will require a strong background in biochemistry.

Good luck!

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Hi, thank you so much for your reply! I have found that astrobiology is known to be a very interdisciplinary field with it involving people from areas of astronomy, geology, chemistry, biology, and physics. I feel that it would be very helpful to study two of these areas in college, however, for a biology major I would have to give up astronomy/astrophysics due to the nature of the major and its requirements at my college- this is why I am considering a major in astronomy and minor in biology. So I guess my next question is, would it be possible to get a master’s degree in biology after minoring in it (especially if I write an honors thesis in astrobiology or take extra biology courses before my master’s program)?

That probably depends on the requirements for a Biology Masters in a particular program. You may need some other chemistry courses which are not part of the requirements for an astronomy major or bio minor, and perhaps stats, if it isn’t already a required course.

But, as I wrote - check the prerequisites for entering a biology master’s program. Look at a few programs that you would target when applying for your masters.

You should also definitely reach out to a number of astrobiologists and ask them about their path, and, in general, start networking - it is never too soon to start networking.

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That was very helpful, thank you!

I concur that the best information will be found mater’s and doctoral program websites - both by checking their prerequisites and their courses of study.

I’m thinking that chemistry would be better as a minor than biology. Bio would be studying what we know about species on Earth, but there’s no way of knowing if life in outer space will have any relationship to the biology of life on Earth. Chemistry will get you down to a more basic level. Biochemistry or Evolutionary Biology would have more relevance than straight Biology.

While I agree that the focus of the minor should be Biochemistry and Evolutionary Biology, I think that a general Chem minor will provide too little of these, compared to a Bio minor

I am only (slightly) familiar with the PhD program at UWa, but I believe that it is similar to other programs. At UWa you apply simultaneously to 2 programs: your ‘home’ subject and the Astrobiology program. So (with an astronomy UG degree) you would apply to the astronomy dept and the astrobiology program. If you are accepted by both there are a series of courses that you do and research work that you do. The ultimate degree would be “PhD in Astronomy and Astrobiology”. A Masters in Bio would not be necessary.

What will be important is research experience: do you have any? do you have a research internship lined up for this summer?

You may be right about the Bio minor. The reason I did is because I was only recently listening to an hour long discussion of this on NPR. The guest, an expert in this field, is the one who recommended chemistry because it gets down to the more elemental interactions from which life developed in its earliest forms. He also made the point that life in another location could well be radically different than anything we recognize, hence our knowledge of biology might have little or no relevance.

My opinion? I have none. I know nothing about this field.

I would love to know the name of the discussion on NPR because it sounds very interesting! I can understand the reasoning behind recommending a chemistry minor/major, but I think it’s interesting that even if biology is different elsewhere we assume that chemistry would be the same. I think life could of course be radically different elsewhere with not only biology being different but also chemistry since there’s still much to be discovered, yet I’m sure it is good to still have experts in both fields to compare what they understand on Earth to elsewhere to begin to grasp how life could exist there.

I actually have looked in the University of Washington astrobiology Ph.D. program and saw that it was a dual Ph.D. program, which seems to be common in the US for astrobiology graduate school programs. I know outside the US the University of Edinburgh has the UK Centre for Astrobiology and also a graduate program that specifically seems to only specialize in astrobiology for a Ph.D. with room to specialize within it through research. Within the duel program at UW I could also get a Ph.D. in biology or microbiology in addition to the Ph.D. in astrobiology, so I wonder what would be more useful or applicable to the work I would do within the field of Astrobiology; a Ph.D. in astronomy or a Ph.D. in biology/microbiology? Specifically, I want to do field work and field research within astrobiology, which I am beginning to think occurs within biology more than astronomy/astrophysics (these are all questions I am wondering that are helpful for me deciding what to major/minor in for undergrad).

As for research experience, I only just completed my first year of college, so no I do not currently have an internship yet, and am spending this summer working and taking a college course to help with what is required for my college. But I hope to have an internship next summer in addition to doing research work with a professor during my upcoming sophomore year. In high school, I did two years of internships one of which was with LIGO and I conducted research with them, but I want to expand to have more experience in my college career as well.

I’m not sure what your basis is for this thinking, and I am no where near expert enough to contradict you- but my sense is that you are mistaken

What you really need to do is figure out whether astronomy, molecular/cellular biology, or evolutionary biology is what is genuinely most interesting to you- that’s your major.

Getting into a PhD program requires research experience; completing one means 5-6 years of research in that field; and getting a permanent job almost always requires a post-doc or two.

Astrobiology is a very niche field, and there are only about half a dozen grad programs in the US. You need to scour the pages of those programs (NASA is great resource: Courses & Programs | Careers | Astrobiology), looking at the specifics of what research the different researchers at each uni are working on, keeping an eye out for topics that make you think ‘oooh that looks really interesting’’. In the meantime you need to be looking for research opps for next summer (start with the NASA site and the REU site). These will all be very competitive, and the more you understand about what they are looking for the better your odds.

ps, note that the Edi program is based in astro not bio.

I believe it was “Bringing Mars Back to Earth” on June 2nd.

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“Astrobiology”? Lord, am I getting old! I am still of the age where I question the existence of extraterrestrial UFOs!

For a career in traditional astronomy/astrophysics, the foundational major of physics (on the bachelor’s level) may be preferred to one in astronomy/astrophysics, in that a physics curriculum may offer the more rigorous preparation for this field (with a minor in astronomy adding range). This principle might extend to your goals in astrobiology as well, and in your case your preferred path might depend even more specifically on your interests. For example, one of the founders of astrobiology, Frank Drake (of the famous equation), was principally an astronomer. However, he sought support from specialists in foundational fields such as chemistry, biology and planetary science (which itself relies on foundational fields) for his SETI investigations. All of these scientists helped develop the field of, and determine the conceptual branches of, astrobiology. It seems that, for undergraduate study, one of these foundational majors, or one of their interdisciplinary variants, could be optimal for your interests (accompanied by an astronomy minor). Based on what you have written, you seem most oriented toward biology / biochemistry / molecular biology, but this yet may be to be determined.

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With respect to this, nothing has changed. Astrobiology, as at its inception in the 1960s, remains a field in search of an object. In essential ways, the Fermi paradox still prevails.

There is a huge difference between looking for support of the hypothesis that living organisms exist on other exoplanets and believing that
A, intelligent beings evolved in another place,
B, that they are existing now,
C, they have the ability to detect intelligent life hundreds to millions of light years away,
D, that they have the ability to travel vast distances at speeds far faster than light,
E, that they have the technology to transmit data at speeds much faster than the speed of light, AND
F, that they would think like humans.

Considering how quickly life first appeared on earth, it is pretty reasonable to assume that it would happen elsewhere. Whether it would ever evolve to multicellular organisms is yet unknown, though that is also possible.

As for intelligent life which develops high levels of technology? With the number of planets in the universe, it is very possible that it happened more than once. However, I think that the planets on which this happens are few and far between, and that physics put a hard limit on the ability of any such species to detect, contact, or travel to a planet with another technological species.

Note that proponents of the existence of extraterrestrial UFOs, with Avi Loeb as one example, do not need to rely on assumptions such as D and E above.

I think I was basing the research aspect off of the study of life in extreme environments within biology, having more opportunities for field research to extreme locations to do research than the likelihood or chance of traveling to do field research within astronomy.

I am genuinely interested in both fields, and know what I want to pursue in life, which is why making the distinction between which of my interests will benefit me the most to get to what I want to do is important. I think there can be a vast difference between enjoying a major, but not enjoying it outside of academia. For example, enjoying studying a topic in school, but then hating the work environment or what life outside of academia entails for the field of study; I think this is a lesson people sometimes learn the hard way and then have to go back to school or somehow pursue something else that meets what they want for a work environment. This is why I am attempting to match my major to what I already know I would want for a work environment in field research.

My college offers opportunities for every student to conduct research on campus both in the school year or in the summer, with most students publishing their research papers, and the research being also a paid experience, so I am not worried about that. I am hoping to do an internship next summer though in addition to my research.

The University of Edinburgh program is under the physics and astronomy department, but the people in the Ph.D. program for astrobiology are mainly from biology backgrounds and most of the research required for the Ph.D. is biological such as two of the three research options being life in extreme environments or the habitability of extraterrestrial environments (both of which involve academic staff, researchers, and Ph.D. candidates from biology).

As suggested reading, look into Lab Girl (Jahren). The author’s work as a geobiologist has taken her to extreme environments, such as those of deserts and high latitude/altitude (but not thermal vents as far as I know).