NASA / JPL-Caltech

From exoplanets to extraterrestrial life, Cornell’s new astrobiology minor will bring together students interested in the intersection of both astronomy and biology.

March 20, 2019

Cornell the First Among Ivy League to Offer Minor in Astrobiology

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From exploring planets beyond our solar system to researching exterrestrial life, Cornell’s new undergraduate minor in astrobiology, to be debuted next semester, will allow students interested in both astronomy and biology to study the “origins of life and life existing beyond the Earth,” according to Prof. Nikole Lewis, astronomy.

The minor is the first of its kind among the Ivy League, while NASA’s webpage on undergraduate programs lists only three other universities that offer astrobiology programs — Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Pennsylvania State University and the University of Arizona.

The introduction of the minor coincides with the rise of exoplanet research more broadly — a field which has dramatically expanded in the last three decades amidst technological advances, according to Lunine.

“This [minor] is strongly centered on, among other things, exo-planets,” Lunine told The Sun. “When we talk about why planets are habitable and which planets might support life, we’re really not talking about just planets in our solar system — we’re really talking about planets everywhere.”

Lunine added that the new minor could help students decide on a particular scientific career or give them greater scientific fluency.

“In doing that students will get a much better appreciation and much better breadth of education in more than one science,” Lunine said.

Lewis noted that the minor will help students interested in both the fields of astronomy and biology “pursue [those] in a way that they can show to others and then use that to leverage further research or careers.”

According to Lunine and Lewis, many students have come to Cornell with an existing interest in astrobiology. But with the inception of the University’s Carl Sagan Institute in 2014 — a research group “developing the forensic toolkit to find life in the universe,” according to its website — the faculty infrastructure and student interest has matured to the point where a minor could be created.

“What makes us unique compared to other astronomy departments at other universities is that we’ve been thinking about the search for life for a long time,” Lewis said.

The minor will require six classes spanning across the fields of astronomy, biology, earth and atmospheric sciences and science communication.

While no new classes will be created specifically for the minor, Lunine said that the newly launched program will allow “students a chance to explore multiple areas of science with a coherent theme.”

“In the next 10 or 20 years, we’ll see more institutions offering more courses and degrees in the subject,” Lunine added. “Who knows, maybe in that time we’ll discover the first evidence of life.”