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Aliens, biology and the future of space-inspired degrees

​​​​​​In October 2019, our very own Professor of Science Communication Adam Hart teamed up with illustrator Memo Kosemen to predict and imagine what life could look like on alien worlds, as part of a project with BBC Ideas – and it got us wondering…

Are our current students equipped to study alien lifeforms? 

And are they likely to have the chance to in their lifetime? 

We put some questions to Adam, and as it turns out, a career in biology might just set you up to be a medic or researcher with newly-discovered interstellar creatures…

How long do you think it’ll be before biology students are working with aliens as well as earth bound species?

In all honesty, a very long time! There remains a small chance we might find microscopic life somewhere else in our solar system, although you wouldn’t bet your house on it. Other than that we would need to be visited, in which case it’ll be us that will be the life forms being studied, or work out how to get to the nearest likely planets. Given these are light years away and we haven’t yet put humans on Mars, we have a long way to go both literally and in terms of technology. But, who knows what the next few hundred years might bring in terms of technological developments…

How would that work differ to when we discover new species on earth?

Some aspects would be remarkably similar – we would need to describe the organisms, their behaviour and ecology in painstaking detail. The real excitement might well come though when we examine their “nuts and bolts” – the molecules and processes that allow them to sustain life: how similar are they to ours, what are the differences? It would be an incredibly exciting process.

Do you think our current biology curriculum prepares students to work with alien lifeforms?

Absolutely! If such an opportunity came along then UoG bioscience students, with their background in diversity, biochemistry, evolution and practical research methods would be more than well prepared! What is more, the focus we have on lab and field work (and combining the two) would prepare them for all the surprises and challenges that exploring new life forms would inevitably bring!

Are the skills transferrable, or will we need an alien biology degree? What might students expect to learn on that course?

Now that is an interesting question. I guess if we got to the stage where we needed to study alien life (and what a stage that would be) then pretty soon we would need specialists who really knew the alien life forms inside and out. However, that knowledge would be built on a framework of scientific understanding and biological insights that would very much be Earth-bound. If you give someone the scientific skills to investigate and understand new systems then those skills would be just as applicable to aliens. We take field trips to South Africa and Borneo for example and the life-forms and habitats our students find there can seem pretty alien initially! Soon though their training kicks in and they can start to make sense of what they find.

Currently we study lifeforms in their natural habitat. What is the limit to which we can study alien life from earth?

Well our first problem is finding it of course! But yes, field studies are the key to understanding life – there is only so much you can do in the lab. It’s just a bit more of a problem when your study organisms might be 8 light years away!

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