Ty Robinson, an assistant professor in the department of astronomy and planetary science, is bringing a new focus to his department. Robinson, with the help of collaborators across the country, has been conducting research to find other habitable planets and any signs of life on them. Outside of his research, the professor dedicates time to his students and enjoys interacting with the Flagstaff community.
Robinson has been working in astrobiology for 12 years, but has only been working at NAU for three. He received his undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics from UA, his master's and doctorate degrees in astronomy and astrobiology from the University of Washington. After NASA announced new studies for future space missions roughly four years ago, Robinson said they recruited four study teams, and he was selected for one of them. His team focused on finding signs of life on other planets, which sparked his interest in the research he does today.
“The overall goal of my research is to develop ideas and technology that would enable us to find and characterize Earth around other stars,” Robinson said.
After his work in graduate school and research with NASA's study group, Robinson said he was able to narrow his focus to his current work. In short, Robinson and his team analyze the atmospheres of other planets. In order to do so, he said the researchers utilize telescopes to probe planetary atmospheres. Robinson explained that this process can reveal signs of habitability. After working with his adviser during graduate school and NASA's study group, Robinson said he was able to narrow his interest to his current work.
Robinson said he works with individuals at NASA, as well as other colleagues in states throughout the nation. He said the opportunity to work with NASA is not only beneficial to him but helpful to NAU's reputation as a whole because it increased awareness of the university’s involvement in astrobiology.
Robinson said it is possible that his research may not be completed in his lifetime, due to lack of funding and available resources. Robinson said NASA controls the distribution of federal funding for research including the development of new instruments. He explained it is not a question of if these resources will be available, but when.
While waiting for machinery to be developed can be frustrating, Robinson said he tries to keep in mind that some aspects of his research are out of his control. He explained that the more enthusiasm he can generate about his research, the more likely it is to make progress faster. This means there is still hope for a discovery to be made sooner rather than later.
“There’s the potential for us to find another planet like Earth in our lifetime and I find that to be extremely motivational,” Robinson said.
In order to provoke interest, Robinson prefers to focus on astrobiology and planetary science when engaging with the community. He said this simultaneously keeps the community informed and enthusiastic. He said he has been able to find other people in Flagstaff who are passionate about planetary science and who he greatly enjoys interacting with.
Mark Salvatore, assistant professor in the department of astronomy and planetary science and associate department chair, also participates in research surrounding astrobiology.
Salvatore started his work with NAU in 2017, the same time as Robinson, which has allowed them to get to know each other fairly well. He said the program is unique due to the passion and excitement he and Robinson have for it.
“Ty’s work is really interesting because it kind of bridges this gap between what is currently known and used in practice, which is kind of what I do,” Salvatore said.
Salvatore said Robinson’s research is essential to the development of further knowledge in planetary science and that it is using fundamentals to better understand astrobiology.
“So, his work is really cutting edge and really pushing the boundaries of what we currently know in the field,” Salvatore said. “And so, he’s involved in instrument and mission development and those kinds of things.”
Both Salvatore and Robinson agree Flagstaff is ideal for their research. Through the United States Geological Survey (USGS) office and Lowell Observatory, the community has played an important role in planetary science for years.
The city is greatly involved in the field to this day through events and organizations, Robinson said. Both professors agreed this involvement has made their research beneficial to the community.
“I like to think that I’m playing some small part in driving excitement about planetary science and big discoveries in astrobiology,” Robinson said. “I also am regularly asked to speak at community events and so it happens a couple of times a year. Every time I’m asked, I do say yes. I do work to engage with the local community to talk about researching exoplanets and astrobiology.”
Robinson said NAU's campus is the perfect place for his research team because the university provides access to technologies and instruments they need to be successful. Some researchers Robinson knows do not have as many resources at their fingertips. More specifically, they have to pay for them.
“It helps to have a cluster or supercomputer to also do some of our simulations,” Robinson said. “NAU has the monsoon cluster, which is a free resource to any researchers. Monsoon is quite critical to the work that we do and it’s wonderful that NAU provides that resource.”
While Robinson devotes time to his research, he also tries to be an asset to the community by speaking at campus events and making sure to be available as a professor. Robinson teaches classes, but also provides resources and guidance for students to conduct their own research.
Robinson explained he advises five graduate students and eight undergraduates. These students work on a variety of projects surrounding the concept of atmospheres and evidence of life on other planets. Robinson and his students comprise his research group: The Habitability, Atmospheres, and Biosignatures Laboratory (HABLab).
HABLab encompasses personalized approaches to each project within Robinson’s purview. While all of the projects have similarities, Robinson said the group benefits undergraduate and graduate students in different ways.
Colin Chandler, a member of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP), is part of HABLab with Robinson. Additionally, he is a doctoral candidate in the astronomy and planetary sciences program. Chandler is in his fourth year of graduate school and has been working with Robinson from the beginning of the graduate program.
Chandler said the professor is brilliant and invaluable to the astrobiology department. He explained that Robinson has an endless amount of knowledge of atmospheres and chemistry.
“The grad students call him a superhero,” Chandler said. “I mean he is unbelievable. He’s an advocate for all of us. He’s the chair of my committee, co-chair with Chad Trujillo. I could not ask somebody to be a better advocate for me.”
Robinson said being a part of HABLab as a graduate student can help one establish the core of their research and discover who they are as a researcher. He explained that typically these students are able to narrow their focus because they have completed their undergraduate degree.
He said these graduate students can easily create the foundation for their careers. In addition to this, Robinson described working with such a world-renowned organization as vital for his students’ futures.
“I think it provides nice opportunities for students both undergraduates and graduates to get a glimpse of career opportunities in other places and in NASA,” Robinson said. “And to get to collaborate with and interact with people at these different institutions. And then hopefully, especially graduate students in my group, provides networking opportunities for them.”
On the other hand, undergraduate students involved in the group are not always committed to their particular research. Robinson mentioned many of them get involved to explore his field of work, but may decide they want to pursue another field in graduate school.
While the level of dedication varies among his students, Robinson said he is more than willing to help each individual. He said his main goal for these students is to help them acquire the necessary skills and get accepted to graduate programs.
“I think the process of training up an undergraduate researcher and helping them develop the tools they need to be a good scientist or grow into a good scientist, that’s something we do in HABLab,” Robinson said.
Junior Megan Gialluca, studying physics and astronomy, is a part of the undergraduate team in HABLab. She said her exposure to astrobiology through her research has played an important role in determining what she wants to study in graduate school.
Gialluca said her research on the atmospheres of other planets is extremely useful as it can provide information about the Earth’s atmosphere. On top of this, she explained this information can help researchers determine how the atmosphere will change over time and under certain conditions. She described her work as inspiring due to the impact it will have.
“It’s like figuring out a puzzle,” Gialluca said. “You have a goal and you want to be able to answer this question but nobody’s answered that question yet, so you have to figure out how you’re actually gonna answer it.”
Being an undergraduate student, Gialluca said she requires more guidance from Robinson at times. She said she appreciates how patient and understanding he is with his students. Gialluca explained Robinson works closely with each student and personalizes his approach to mentoring them. She said he is the best professor she has ever met because he is attentive and refuses to give up on students.
On a typical day, Robinson said he allocates roughly three hours to meeting with his advisees to assess where they stand. While some students prefer to meet with Robinson regularly throughout the week, he said others meet with him less frequently, sometimes every two to three weeks. He said he is flexible with a variety of meeting schedules in order to ensure each student succeeds and can find what works for them.
When advising his students, Robinson explained he likes to hear how each student has progressed in their research. Additionally, he said the meetings allow him and his students to discuss any issues they have encountered and brainstorm strategies to solve the problem.
As a doctoral candidate Chandler does not take classes anymore, which allows him to spend time meeting with Robinson on a weekly basis. During this time, he said they discuss any developments within his research and Robinson provides guidance for complications Chandler has run into.
Robinson said he likes to help his students with responsibilities outside of their research as well. For graduate students specifically, Robinson said they use their meeting time to prepare for presentations or conferences they may have. This includes practicing and discussing what to expect.
In his work with undergraduate students, Robinson explained they use their meetings to talk about graduate school and what is next for them. He said they typically explore qualifications and programs that would be right for the individual. Furthermore, Robinson often reads through his students’ applications for graduate school and provides suggestions for improvement.
“He’s not only invested in your research with him. He’s also invested in your life as a student,” Gialluca said. “My class schedule matters to him and opportunities that I get outside of our research, like internships, matter to him, too and he always helps with applications for any scientific-related thing at all. Even if it doesn’t directly relate to our research he still takes that time out of his day to give you feedback on what you’re doing.”
Through his guidance, many of Robinson's students have encountered exclusive opportunities. Specifically, Chandler said he was able to attend a conference in Oxford recently, thanks to Robinson.
Without Robinson, Chandler explained he probably would not be in graduate school, because he had not originally considered it. He also said Robinson is responsible for his involvement in the NSF GRFP.
"I didn’t even really know about it until he brought it to my attention," Chandler said, "And he did this of his own accord, it’s not like he was getting paid to do that and that helped me out.”
To Chandler, the level of availability Robinson provides is exceptional in comparison to other professors. He described his start in graduate school as extremely stressful and said Robinson helped greatly with managing the pressure.
Through their research, Robinson said many students have received financial support from the Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity and NASA Space Grant, which funds full-time undergraduate students' research. He said this allows them to continue their research while also furthering their education.
Despite having been at NAU for a short time, Chandler said Robinson has made great strides in expanding the program and making it more accessible.
“He’s also really into inclusivity in astronomy and that’s really important to me,” Chandler said.
Although Robinson spends a fair amount of time advising his students, he said he tries to have an open door at all times to allow those who are outside of his classes and HABLab to ask questions.
“I would say any given semester, I get a handful of students who just want to reach out to me and ask questions about astrobiology,” Robinson said. “So, I do have fairly regular meetings which are just new undergraduates who pop in my office.”
Additionally, Robinson spends his time managing projects and researching independently. An important part of project management for Robinson is allocating funds, which come from multiple sources, including NAU and NASA.
Funding for research such as Robinson’s can be difficult to come by as the success rate for a program is about 10%, he said. Robinson explained that in order to receive funding from NASA, the researcher is required to write a 15-page proposal describing the study. Robinson said receiving funding felt magical and inspiring due to its rarity.
Through teaching, mentoring and researching, Chandler said Robinson helps the astronomy and planetary science department to a great degree. Students and faculty members agree his leadership makes a tremendous difference. Information about Robinson’s research can be found on his website.