ASU astrobiologist and physicist receives early career award from the International Society of the Study of the Origin of Life

Arizona State University astrobiologist and theoretical physicist Sara Walker of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the School of Complex Adaptive Systems and the Beyond Center has been selected to receive the Stanley L. Miller Early Career Award from the International Society of the Study of the Origin of Life. The award is provided in recognition to Walker for her outstanding contributions to origins of life research early in her career.

“This is a very well-deserved honor for Professor Sara Walker for her significant contributions to this important area of study,” said School of Earth and Space Exploration Director Meenakshi Wadhwa. “We are also proud of the fact that ASU provides the environment necessary to nurture the type of interdisciplinary and innovative work for which she is being recognized.”

Walker’s research focuses on developing a new theory for understanding what life is, how we can quantify the origin of life and how we can build quantitative standards to guide our search for life on other worlds. She is particularly interested in whether there are “laws of life” that universally will apply to life anywhere in the universe, and that will allow transitioning astrobiology to a science that can predict what other kinds of life might be out there.

“Sara developed a unique approach to framing the problem of origin of life research, as well as bringing together astrobiology, origin of life, and artificial life,” stated one of her nominators. “These areas combine planetary science, chemical evolution and computer science, helping her establish an entirely new approach as she joined ASU as faculty in 2013. She then established a world-leading team exploring the statistical properties of both prebiotic and living systems with a focus to understanding the chemistry-to-biology transition. She is both an inspirational scientist, communicator and mentor, but her insights are as incredible as her humility.”

In addition to being on the faculty of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and the School of Complex Adaptive Systems, Walker is also the deputy director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science and associate director of the ASU-Santa Fe Institute Center for Biosocial Complex Systems, as well as a member of the external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute.

“When I started out in origins research I would never have thought this award would go to theoretical research focused on understanding what life is, because that was so far outside what most of the field was doing,” Walker said. “I’m really grateful for the support I have gotten at ASU and in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. The kind of work I do could literally not happen anywhere else because it is just too out of the box for a standard department or university. This award is very dear to me for that reason, and also because it sets a precedent in our field that opens doors for others looking to apply theory and complex systems thinking in astrobiology and to map those ideas to experiments and observations we can do in the coming decades.”

Walker is the second School of Earth and Space Exploration faculty to receive this award, the first being Professor Jason Raymond, who was on the faculty at the school from 2011 to 2018.

“ASU and our school are gaining a good track record for fostering deeper thinking on the problems of origins of life and how we should search for it beyond what ‘more traditional’ departments and institutions can allow,” Walker said. “I’m glad to follow in the footsteps of my many colleagues at ASU whom I look up to in that regard, to be able to continue the tradition of boundary-pushing science that we do and to work with our amazing students who are even more fearless than we faculty are.”

About the International Society of the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL)

ISSOL has more than 500 members representing over 20 countries in disciplines as varied as astronomy and molecular biology. The society’s supporting journal, Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres, has been publishing work in the field since 1968 and is the longest-established and most authoritative journal for astrobiology and origins of life research.

Karin Valentine
karinv@asu.edu