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In broad terms, an astrobiologist looks for life throughout the universe. Her search and studies may include an examination of environments that could potentially be a prior, current, or future home to life, particularly on places other than Earth. She may study how life has evolved in the hopes of learning how life may start in other places in the solar system or beyond. This could include an exploration of other planets, stars, comets, or other astronomical bodies.
Much of the work that an astrobiologist is involved in revolves around research. This may include developing models and simulations. In addition, she might be encouraged to contribute to projects belonging to other researchers or develop her own independent projects. She may also invent astrobiological equipment that can be used either on Earth or on missions to outer space, such as new microscopes, telescopes, or other tools. These pieces of equipment might be used to detect past life or to find signs that life may be beginning to develop.
Although much time is spent conducting research, communication is also essential. As a result, an astrobiologist may need to relay information about the progress of her research or about a particular project through conference or meeting presentations, reports, and publications. Typically, these communications and events are read or attended by peers or by researchers from other institutes or organizations.
To better understand what an astrobiologist does, an example may be helpful. An astrobiologist might wonder whether oxygen exists on a particular planet that is void of all plant life. After performing detailed research, both on Earth and in space — usually over a period of many years, she may be able to propose an answer to this question. Then, using her research as a foundation, she might participate at conferences as a speaker and submit her research and findings to publications.
It is not an easy path to become an astrobiologist. At minimum, a bachelor's degree in a field such as astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, or engineering is required. In most cases, however, an astrobiologist needs a master's degree and a doctorate as well. In fact, many employers require that their astrobiologists have PhD degrees in chemistry, engineering, physics, astronomy, or a related field of science. The most common places for an astrobiologist to work include national laboratories, universities, astronomical organizations, and national or private institutes.