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Planning Committee Member Bios 


JAMES F. KASTING is the Evan Pugh Professor at Pennsylvania State University. He research interests include atmospheric evolution, planetary atmospheres, and paleoclimates. Before joining Pennsylvania State University, he spent two years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and seven years in the Space Science Division at NASA-Ames Research Center. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life, and the American Geophysical Union. He has published dozens of papers and two books, The Earth System (Prentice Hall 2009) and How to Find a Habitable Planet (Princeton University Press 2010). Dr. Kasting is a past chair of NASA’s Exoplanet Planning and Analysis Group (ExoPAG). He earned his A.B. in chemistry and physics from Harvard University, and his M.S. in physics and atmospheric science from University of Michigan, where he also earned his Ph.D. in atmospheric science. In addition, he has served on the Academies Committee for US-USSR Workshop on Planetary Sciences, the Committee on the Astrophysical Context for Life, the Panel to Review Terrestrial Planet Finder Science Goals, and the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science.

KEVIN P. HAND is the deputy chief scientist of solar system exploration at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He works on numerical modeling, laboratory experiments, and instrument development to advance our understanding of the physics and chemistry of ice-covered ocean moons in the outer solar system. His research interests include electromagnetic field interactions at icy worlds, radiolytic chemistry and implications for astrobiology, and spectroscopic biosignatures, among others. In his role as deputy chief scientist for solar system exploration Dr. Hand helps guide JPL’s future for the robotic exploration of the solar system. He helps design and determines the missions that will best address the key science questions pertaining to the origin and evolution of planets in our solar system. He has worked closely with NASA and members of congress about the value of solar system exploration. Previously, Dr. Hand was a scientist for the planetary ices group at JPL and was a visiting research fellow at Princeton University in the Department of Astrophysical Sciences. He is a recipient of the National Geographic Society Emerging Explorer Award and the Lew Allen Award for Excellence. He earned his Ph.D. in geological and environmental sciences from Stanford University. He has served on the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science.

LISA M. PRATT is a provost professor in the Department of Geological Sciences and incoming associate executive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University (IU). Her research interests include the geomicrobiology of sulfate-reducing and sulfide-oxidizing microorganisms, natural radiolysis of water as a source of redox gradients and metabolic energy for life, and the fate of microbes and complex organic molecules under Mars-analogue conditions. Her recent research has been supported by external awards from NASA, NSF, and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. Previously, Dr. Pratt was director of a NASA Astrobiology Institute team studying bio-sustaining energy and nutrient cycles in the deep subsurface of Earth and Mars, and was a National Research Council postdoctoral fellow with the U.S. Geological Survey. She was the first woman to join IU’s Department of Geological Sciences, as well as the first woman to chair the department. She received the Distinguished Faculty Award from the College of Arts and Sciences Alumni Association, and also the Provost’s Professor Award. She was elected a fellow of the Geological Society of America. She earned her Ph.D. in geology from Princeton University. Dr. Pratt has previously served as chair of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group. She has served on the Academies Planetary Science Decadal Survey Mars Panel, as well as PGA’s Panel on Earth Sciences, and DELS’ Panel on Sedimentary Basins and Basin Analysis.

WILLIAM BAINS is a senior associate at the University of Cambridge in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology. He is also a visiting scientist in Sara Seager’s exoplanet study group in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His work touches several fields: regenerative medicine, seen through his collaboration with the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Research Foundation; astrobiology, demonstrated through his work with a lab at MIT seeking to determine how life could develop on distant planets and how we could detect that life; and business and entrepreneurship, especially with regards to the biotechnology industry. Dr. Bains has founded several biotechnology companies, beginning with Amedis Pharmaceuticals Ltd., and has served on the boards of several others. He was previously a visiting professor at Imperial College, London. He has been awarded the Toshiba Year of Invention prize, is an elected member of the Human Genome Organization, and is the author of four books, including Venture Capital and the European Biotechnology Industry and Artificial Intelligence from A to Z. He has no prior Academies experience.

DIMITAR SASSELOV is the Phillips Professor of Astronomy and the founding director of the Origins of Life Initiative at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. His research interests include the many modes of interaction between radiation and matter, which has more recently led him to study the nature of planets orbiting other stars. He is a co-investigator on NASA’s Kepler mission, searching for exoplanet transits. He also studies how planetary conditions may act as the seedbed of life, and how knowing the composition and conditions of a planet could teach us how life might form there. Dr. Sasselov began his career as an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow, and was previously a senior science advisor for the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. He was also previously a member of the Global Agenda Council on space security at the World Economic Forum. He has delivered talks at DLD, TED, and Davos, and is an investigator on the Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from Sofia University followed by a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Toronto. He has no prior Academies experience.

CHRISTOPHER H. HOUSE is a professor of geosciences at the Pennsylvania State University. He is also director of the Penn State Astrobiology Research Center, director of the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium, and holds a faculty appointment in the Huck Institute for the Life Sciences at Penn State. His research interests focus on microbial diversity and cultivation, microbial paleontology, molecular evolution and genomics, astrobiology, and geomicrobiology. Dr. House is a past member of the Planetary Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council and the Scientific Ocean Drilling Vessel Program Advisory Committee; an Ocean Drilling Program Distinguished Lecturer; a participant in the Beckman Chinese-American Frontiers of Science Symposium; and is an editor of the journal Geobiology. Previously, Dr. House was an associate professor at the Pennsylvania State University. He earned his B.S. in biochemistry and cell biology from the University of California, San Diego, and his Ph.D. in geology from the University of California, Los Angeles. He is currently the co-chair of the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science.

VICTORIA MEADOWS is a professor of Astronomy and director of the astrobiology program at the University of Washington. She is also the principal investigator for the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory Lead Team, which she founded. Her research interests include theoretical modeling of terrestrial planetary environments to understand their habitability, the generation and detectability of planetary biosignatures and their false positives, and solar system planetary observations. The overarching goal of her research is to determine how to recognize whether a distant extrasolar planet can or does support life. Previously, Dr. Meadows was a research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an associate research scientist at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology. She is a recipient of several NASA Group Achievement Awards, has been on the SETI Institute Science Advisory Board, and was a Frontiers of Science Kavli Fellow. She earned her Ph.D. in physics from the University of Sydney. She has no prior Academies experience.

TANJA BOSAK is an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. Her research in geobiology studies how microbes shape sedimentary rocks, how microbial metabolisms leave biogeochemical patterns in sediments, and how organisms fossilize by combining microbiology, sedimentology, and stable isotope geochemistry. Her lab, which is part of the MIT NASA astrobiology team, Foundations of Complex Life, seeks to develop a quantitative understanding of the various morphological and geochemical biosignatures found in sedimentary rocks, in addition to studying the microfossil record associated with certain major climatic and geochemical oscillations in the Neoproterozoic Era. Previously, Dr. Bosak was a postdoctoral researcher for the Microbial Sciences Initiative at Harvard University. She is an investigator on the Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life, and was awarded the James B. Macelwane Medal by the American Geophysical Union, of which she is a fellow. She has been awarded the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Chair, the Solomon J. Bushbaum Faculty Initiative Fund Award, the Harold E. Edgerton Award, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program Faculty Mentor of the Year, and the Hayes Career Development Chair, all from MIT. Dr. Bosak earned her Ph.D. in geobiology from the California Institute of Technology. She has no prior Academies experience.

NITA SAHAI is a professor and the Ohio Research Scholar at the University of Akron in Biomaterials in the Department of Polymer Science. Her research interests include biomolecular and cellular interactions with biomaterials and minerals, interfacial chemistry, the origins and early evolution of life, and the relationship between molecular-level, nanoscale, and macroscopic properties. Her research group is working determine the potential role of mineral surfaces in the evolution of cell surfaces. Previously, Dr. Sahai was a former professor of geochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she received the Romnes Faculty Fellowship. She has served as an editor on a number of publications, including Medical Mineralogy and Geochemistry, Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry series, American Mineralogist, and Geochemical Transactions. She is an investigator on the Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life, a recipient of the NSF CAREER award, a fellow of the Mineralogical Society of America, as well as the Society’s Distinguished Lecturer. Dr. Sahai earned her Ph.D. in geochemistry from Johns Hopkins University. She has no prior Academies experience.

IRENE A. CHEN is an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the Program in Biomolecular Sciences and Engineering. Her research interests include synthetic biology, the origin of life, phage-based application, biophysics, and molecular evolution. Dr. Chen’s lab examines how chemistry gave rise to life by studying the principles of emergence and evolution of biomolecules, using both experiments and computer modeling. Previously, she was a Bauer Fellow at the FAS Center for Systems Biology at Harvard University studying RNA fitness landscapes, non-enzymatic nucleic acid polymerization, prebiotic information storage, and phages. She is an investigator in the Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life and a Searle Scholar. She received the David White Research Award, given once every three years by the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life for outstanding contributions in astrobiology. She received her Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard University, as well as an M.D. from Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology through their joint program in Health Sciences and Technology. She has no prior Academies experience.

GARY RUVKUN (NAS, NAM) is professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. His lab investigates neuroendocrine control of C. elegans development, metabolism, and longevity, as well as control of temporal pattern formation by heterochronic genes. He also has begun new studies on the genetic control of molting and neurotransmitter tranport. His lab has also started work with the Church Laboratory and engineers at MJ Research and the MIT Center for Space Research to develop a miniature thermal cycler and protocols to send to Mars in search of microbial life. As a postdoc he worked with Bob Horvitz at MIT and Walter Gilbert at Harvard, where he explored the heterochronic genes that control the temporal dimension of development. This work led to the discovery of the first microRNA genes and their mRNA targets by the Ambros and Ruvkun laboratories, the discoveries by the Ruvkun laboratory that the mechanism of microRNA regulation of target mRNAs is post-transcriptional and that some microRNA genes are conserved across animal phylogeny. Dr. Ruvkun holds an A.B. biophysics from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in biophysics Harvard University. He has served on the Academies Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life and the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science.

NILTON O. RENNÓ is a professor at the University of Michigan in the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering. He is also chair of the department’s master’s programs and director of the master of engineering program in space engineering. Dr. Rennó’s research interests include aerosols and climate, astrobiology, aviation, instrument development, planetary science, thermodynamics, and systems engineering. He studies the physical processes that control the climate of Earth and other planets, and works on the design and fabrication of instruments for this purpose. Previously, Dr. Rennó was a tenured associate professor in the Department of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona. He has received the Space Foundation John L. “Jack” Swigert Jr. Award for Space Exploration, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Foundation’s Award for Excellence and the National Aeronautic Association’s 2012 Robert J. Collier Trophy for his work on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory team and the Curiosity rover mission, as well as several NASA Group Achievement Awards. He earned his Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has previously served as a member on the SSB’s Committee on the Review of MEPAG Report on Planetary Protection for Mars Special Regions and PGA’s Panel on Earth Sciences.

MARGARET TURNBULL is an astrobiologist and principle investigator at the SETI Institute. She is also director of the Wisconsin-based Global Science Institute. She was the lead scientist for NASA’s New Worlds Observatory concept, aimed at discovering Earth-like planets around nearby stars. Her research interests include searching for signs of life on the planets of nearby stars, sustainable agriculture, and green technologies. She is currently principle investigator for the WFIRST exoplanet imaging coronagraph, and for a WFIRST Preparatory Science Team on habitable exoplanet colors and spectral signatures, in addition to chairing the WFIRST Coronagraph Target Selection Working Group. She is also serving on the Hab-Ex Science and Technology Definition team to define a flagship scale space telescope plus starshade mission to find habitable worlds amongst the Sun’s nearest neighbors. She is a member of the executive committee of NASA’s Exoplanet Planning and Analysis Group (ExoPAG), a co-investigator on the Arizona State University’s “Exoplanetary Ecosystems” NExSS team, and a co-author of NASA’s probe-scale Exo-S telescope plus starshade concept study. As a graduate student, she created the Catalogue of Nearby Habitable Systems (HabCat) and observed the spectrum of the Earth in the optical and near-infrared. Prior to embarking on an independent research track, Dr. Turnbull was an assistant astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, a NASA astrobiology postdoc at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and a graduate student researcher at SETI. She is a member of the American Astronomical Society and has received numerous fellowships, including a Science Fellowship from the Space Telescope Science Institute and a National Research Council/NASA Astrobiology Postdoctoral Fellowship. She received her Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Arizona. She has no prior Academies experience.

PHILIP M. NECHES (NAE) is the founder of Teradata Corporation. He is a trustee of the California Institute of Technology and is a lead mentor and venture partner at Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator in New York. Dr. Neches’s interests include big data, information systems architecture, nanotechnology, start-ups, business strategy, and engineering education. He has been an independent consultant, director, and advisor at a number of public and private information technology companies. Previously, he was vice president and group technology officer for the AT&T Multimedia Products and Services Group and senior vice president and chief scientist of NCR Corporation. Dr. Neches founded Teradata Corporation in 1979, and received the Product of the Year Award on behalf of the company. Dr. Neches received his Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology. He participated in several Academy committees, including the Committee on a Vision for the Future of Center Based Engineering Research for NSF.

MARK H. THIEMENS (NAS) is the dean, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, and Chancellor’s Associates Chair in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego. His research is centered on use of the mass-independent fractionation process for stable isotopes to study the origin and evolution of the solar system from meteorite analysis, definition of the source and transformation of greenhouse gases in the troposphere, chemistry of the stratosphere and mesosphere, chemistry of the ancient Martian atmosphere, and the origin and evolution of oxygen-ozone and life in the Earth’s Precambrian. His climate work has included field work at the South Pole, Greenland summit, Mt. Everest and the rainforests of South America. His work also includes studies of the origin and evolution of life on Earth, especially the oxygen evolution and includes field sampling in China. He has been recognized with the E.O. Lawrence Medal from the DOE, Goldschmidt Medal of the Geochemical Society and several honorary professorships. He earned his Ph.D. in geophysics from Florida State University and a postdoc at the Enrico Fermi Institute for Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago working on solar wind evolution over time. His extensive Academies service includes membership on the Space Studies Board, Board on Energy and Environmental Systems, PNAS Editorial Board, and the Committee on the Review of Planetary Protection Requirements for Mars Sample-Return Missions.