NASA selects ASU science teams for astrobiology research

School of Earth and Space Exploration faculty to lead one of eight projects, participate in three more

November 9, 2020

The NASA Astrobiology Program has announced the selection of eight new interdisciplinary research teams to inaugurate its Interdisciplinary Consortia for Astrobiology Research (ICAR) program. The breadth and depth of the research of these teams spans the spectrum of astrobiology research, from cosmic origins and planetary system formation to the origins and evolution of life and the search for life beyond Earth.

Faculty from Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration are leading one of the eight NASA-selected projects, and they are participating in an additional three more. NASA has selected ASU for astrobiology research funding, including the “Planetary Systems Biochemistry” project, which combines big data, experimental and observational approaches to biosignatures, and integrating data from across the Earth system to develop new statistical frameworks for life detection. Illustration by Michael Northrop/ASU Download Full Image

School of Earth and Space Exploration faculty member Sara Walker is the principal investigator of the awarded “Planetary Systems Biochemistry” team, which will be combining big data, novel high-throughput experiments and models to ultimately determine a way to quantify the universal properties of life and to predict what life should look like in diverse planetary environments. Walker’s team also includes deputy principal investigator Hyunju Kim and co-investigators Hilairy Hartnett, Elizabeth Trembath-Reichert, Michael Line, Everett Shock and Ariel Anbar.

“One of the biggest challenges we must confront in our search for life in the universe is to identify life’s universal signatures and develop quantitative tools that allow us to recognize these in alien environments,” said Walker, who is also the deputy director of ASU’s Beyond Center. “Our project will advance multivariate statistical approaches to astrobiology, combining complex systems science with big data and experiments to develop next-generation biosignatures that will provide new tools to not only recognize life as we know it, but also as we don’t know it.” Project deputy principal investigator Kim adds, "The ultimate goal of our project is to develop quantitative frameworks and rigorous mathematical tools for understanding the universal principles underlying biological systems across diverse planetary environments."  

In addition to being on the Planetary Systems Biochemistry team, Anbar is also the deputy principal investigator on a second ICAR-award project “What Life Wants: Exploring the Natural Selection of Elements,” led by principal investigator Betül Kaçar of the University of Arizona. This project seeks to understand the essential attributes of life and the ways in which they shape our notions of habitability and the search for life on other worlds.

“Our team will explore the natural selection of the chemical elements during the coevolution of life and environment on Earth, focusing on metal use in the biological nitrogen (N) cycle,” said Anbar. “We will carry out geochemical and biological investigations that involve ancient materials, experiments and modern natural systems.”

Sedimentary rocks like these from the Hamersley Basin in Western Australia, deposited billions of years ago, tell us about changing availability of metals in Earth’s oceans and will be studied by the “What Life Wants: Exploring the Natural Selection of Elements” team, which has been awarded a NASA ICAR award. Photo by Ariel Anbar/ASU

A third ICAR awarded project, “The M-dwarf Opportunity: Characterizing Nearby M-dwarf Habitable Zone Planets,” involves co-investigator and associate director of ASU's Interplanetary Initiative,  Evgenya Shkolnik . Led by Kevin Stevenson at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, the team on this project will seek to determine how best to detect biosignatures on M-dwarf planets.

"We aim to develop a holistic view to accurately assess the habitability of rocky planets in the habitable zone of M stars, including the characterization of the host stars, which affect the planet’s atmospheric formation, evolution and chemistry,” said Shkolnik. “This project is a natural next step to our longtime observational efforts to study M stars, which are the most prevalent hosts of rocky planets.”

And a fourth project, “Alien Earths: Which Nearby Planetary Systems Are Likely to Host Habitable Planets and Life?” includes co-investigator Maitrayee Bose. It is led by Daniel Apai of the University of Arizona and seeks to advance our understanding of which nearby planetary systems may harbor habitable worlds. Bose will lead cosmochemical studies of meteorites, left over from the young solar system, to help understand water delivery during the formation of planetary systems.

Additionally awarded NASA-funded teams 

  • Timothy Lyons, University of California, Riverside: "Alternative Earths – How to Build and Sustain a Detectable Biosphere."
  • Burckhard Seelig, University of Minnesota: "Emergence of a Complex Biochemical System: Evolutionary Aspects of the Path to Coded Protein Synthesis."
  • Donald Burke, University of Missouri: "Bringing RNA to Life – Emergence of Biological Catalysis."
  • Natalie Batalha, University of California, Santa Cruz: "Follow the Volatiles: Tracing Chemical Species Relevant to Habitability From Proto-planetary Disks to Exoplanet Atmospheres."

The goal of NASA’s Astrobiology Program is the study of the origins, evolution and distribution of life in the universe. The program is central to NASA’s continued exploration of our solar system and beyond, and supports research into the origin and early evolution of life, the potential of life to adapt to different environments, and the implications for life elsewhere.

ICAR is a new organizational structure for the NASA Astrobiology Program, developed over time to meet the needs of a rapidly evolving field with an expanded scope and emergent questions driven by two decades of research and discovery in astrobiology. The program supports an interdisciplinary approach to a single compelling question in astrobiology, collectively addressing the goals of the agency’s Astrobiology Strategy.

“We are excited about these additions to the astrobiology research portfolio,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in a NASA press release announcing the awards. “The astrobiology community continues to grow and is increasing their contributions to planning and implementation of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate flight missions. These new teams are central to ensuring astrobiology goals are cohesively integrated into those future missions.”

Karin Valentine

Media Relations & Marketing manager, School of Earth and Space Exploration


For 12 years, parents memorialized son with annual tournament for ASU scholarships

2020 was final year for popular fundraiser

November 9, 2020

Christopher Rearley spent his life beating the odds. He was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age 6 and was permanently using a wheelchair by 11. By the time he started college at 18, his doctors, knowing that his breathing capacity was only 20% of normal, said he would live only months, a year at most.

That prediction didn’t hold up. He started community college, then came to Arizona State University, defying his doctors’ prognosis. Christopher Rearley, Rearly Family, poker, tournament, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, scholarships Christopher Rearley, seated, and members of his family including his parents, Bob and Carolyn, standing immediately behind him, pose for this undated photo. After Christopher Rearley died in 2007, his parents started a charity poker tournament in his name that for 12 years has raised money for scholarships for students dealing with disabilities in ASU's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Photo courtesy of Bob and Carolyn Rearley Download Full Image

Rearley received his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from ASU in 1997. His gamble paid off in that he lived 15 more years — not one — which is why it is no surprise to know that he loved playing poker.

After spending most of his life living with the effects of MD, Rearley passed away in December 2007 at 33. His parents, Carolyn and Bob Rearley, wanted to honor him and the field he studied by raising money for scholarships specifically for students with disabilities attending Arizona State University's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. They decided to hold a poker tournament.

There are plenty of other ways to raise money for a cause, from formal dinners in hotel ballrooms to car washes and everything in between. But it just seemed right to the Rearleys to raise it in a way their son would have found personally delightful and be enjoyable to those involved.

A poker tournament said so much about their son, who particularly enjoyed playing a variation known as Texas Hold ’em. Poker also symbolized his overcoming the many challenges he faced. So the Rearleys started planning.

“We had a cabin in the mountains for several years. Chris wasn’t able to go with us any longer because of the altitude and some other challenges,” Bob Rearley said. “When we were gone on the weekends he and a group of friends liked to play Texas Hold ’em. They’d get together on Saturday evenings. I didn’t know about the game at the time and I still know little about it. I know five-card stud.”

Christopher Rearley, Rearley Family, poker, tournament, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, scholarships

Chips are displayed from each of the 12 annual charity poker tournaments held by the family of Christopher Rearley to benefit scholarships for School of Criminology and Criminal Justice students. Photo courtesy of Bob and Carolyn Rearley

In March 2009, the Rearleys held their first-ever charity poker tournament at their Scottsdale home to benefit the school where Chris earned his degree. The first event brought about 50 players and 30 volunteers. Many were Chris’ former poker buddies, who used to join him on those weekends over stacks of chips and decks of cards while his parents were out of town. 

“We couldn’t believe all these people were here supporting us and helping us to achieve our goal.” Carolyn Rearley said. “But we realized that to keep this alive we couldn’t keep holding it at our house.”

She said that first tournament was organized in only two months.

“I look back and can’t believe we did it in such a short amount of time. About $5,000 was raised and it was amazing to me that we made that much,” Carolyn Rearley said. The table limit was $40, she said, so she and her husband weren’t worried about anyone losing a lot of money.

Starting the second year, the event moved to a golf course clubhouse, taking about nine months to plan. “Bob and I are perfectionists so everything had to be just so,” Carolyn Rearley said. It must have been pretty close to perfect, because the tournament was held annually for 11 more years.

Chris himself always had an unmistakable presence at each tournament, which was testimony to his love of laughter. Every year, a caricature of him was prominently placed at the entrance to the event. In the drawing, Chris is depicted wearing a favorite shirt. Each year he had a seat at the head table, with that shirt draped over the chair and his favorite ASU hat on the table.

“So he was always there,” his mother said. “The dealer would put in chips for him and many times he would stay in the game longer than some of the other players.”

The prizes also became more attractive as time went on, to the point where contestants who won enough hands to make it to the final table of eight players each won a prize. Whomever was the final winner had first choice, followed by the second place and third place winners and down the line.

Some quite attractive prizes were awarded over the years. Over the years, several ASU units supported the effort by donating Sun Devil Athletics and ASU Gammage tickets. Winners also received prizes such as airline tickets for four to anywhere in the country Southwest Airlines flew. The Walt Disney Company and Sea World gave tickets to their parks. Rounds of golf on some of the nicer courses in the Valley were donated, too.

“We have had people who never knew us before but came to this tournament and became friends, supported us and spread the word,” Carolyn Rearley said. “This encouraged others to attend, helping make our tournament the success it was. With their help we raised greater funds to support the scholarship in Chris’ memory.”

The first event was a financial success, but also brought together so many people who had a connection to Chris or to those who knew him. Combined, through the last one held in March 2020, again in the Rearley home, the Christopher Allen Rearley Endowment Scholarship (CARES) Poker Tournament raised more than $130,000 for scholarships for School of Criminology and Criminal Justice students with disabilities. The tournament proceeds comprise the school’s largest scholarship endowment ever, according to the school.

This past year, Bob and Carolyn Rearley made the difficult decision that the 2020 tournament would be the last. Chris’ friends, old and new, were disappointed. “They were very sorry to see us end it.This has been a labor of love,” Carolyn Rearley said. “It came full circle.”

For the Rearleys, all the hard work was worth it for so many reasons, but most of all, it was because the tournament did its most important job: preserving their son’s memory.  “Many of the early players and volunteers stayed with us over the years,” Bob Rearley said. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

“He had his struggles but he never ever complained, I might think of a time or two, but he really never did.” Carolyn Rearley said of Chris. “He always thought about the other guy.”

Chris wanted to go to law school because of his commitment to human and civil rights.  But by that time his disability had advanced to a point where he was unable to continue his education.

“He fought for the underdog,” she said. “He was funny. He was the master of one-line zingers. He liked to tease. Chris has an older sister, one nephew and two nieces he really loved. He’d be proud to know the first two graduated from ASU and one more is in college.”

His parents said he believed strongly in the importance of education for everyone, especially the disadvantaged.  “Although he was physically challenged, he had a strong brain, and we always encouraged him to use it,” Carolyn Rearley said.

The tournament that bore his name may be retired now, but it’s not tough to imagine Chris’ friends are still gathering somewhere and tossing a few chips his way.

And where they are, he is, too — still beating the odds.

Mark J. Scarp

Media Relations Officer, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions