SPASA 2011 – Making connections

Universidade de São Paulo Instituto de Astronomia, Geofisica e Ciencias Atmosferica 11th – 20th December 2011

For 10 days the São Paulo Advanced School of Astrobiology (SPASA) brought together renowned researchers, students and early career post-docs of different countries and backgrounds to exchange experience and to enhance interactions in this exciting and continuously growing multi- and interdisciplinary research field.

10th of December: Travel and arrival

Avenida Paulista. Credit: Stefanie Lutz

After a 24 h travel time I was pretty happy about finally being in São Paulo. I don’t want to complain, some of my colleagues even had to travel for about two days. And leaving cold and rainy England and arriving at sunny 25 °C, and ahead a promising week of science and meeting a lot of new people, definitely made it worth it. On the trip to the hotel I got my first impression on how bad traffic in São Paulo can be. In the hotel it was pretty easy to identify other participants – the poster tubes were quite obvious. We were accommodated in the Caesar Business Hotel in one of the most important avenues of São Paulo, Avenida Paulista, famous for its financial and cultural institutions and extensive shopping malls. The avenue is always very crowded (not to say messy) and there is always a lot going on attracting attention like artists or street sellers. In particular I was impressed by the massive Christmas decoration everywhere at that time. It almost seemed like there was a Christmas decoration competition going on between the different banks, shopping centres, etc.. During that week there was an additional attraction: A group of about hundred weird people walking around with name badges and poster tubes…

11th of December: Opening ceremony

In the evening of the 11th the opening ceremony was held in the auditorium of our hotel. Some introductory talks about Astrobiology in general and about the structure of the school were given. In the end we were offered typical Brazilian cocktails and then I started to tell people the three sentences I was going to repeat during that week pretty often: Who I am, where I am from and what I am doing – probably sometimes even twice the same person.

12th to 17th December: Scientific program – Lectures, focus groups, poster sessions and day trip to Synchroton

The scientific program took part at the University of São Paulo in the Abrahao de Moraes auditorium at the Physics Institute. Every morning we got picked up by buses close to the hotel. Well done by the organisers who managed to relocate more than a hundred people twice a day. Especially since the busy avenue where we stayed is not that suitable for loading and unloading more than a hundred people. Although the distance between the hotel and the University is not that much, it took us about an hour to get there and an hour to get back – again traffic in São Paulo can be really bad, especially during the rush hour.

Lectures (12th – 17th Dec)

The broad field of Astrobiology was perfectly covered by an abundance of lecturers (30 in total!) with all kinds of scientific backgrounds. The school was divided into three core subjects covering the areas of Astronomy, Biology/Chemistry and Planetary Science/Geology, going from the Big Bang to the origin and evolution of life. Each area was covered in the form of short-courses by one or more specialist(s) namely Lisa Kaltenegger, Lynn Rothschild, Norm Sleep and Steven Benner. Individual lectures covered more specific subjects and showed research opportunities and recent results.


A video conference with Carl Pilcher provided the opportunity to talk about international collaborations with the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

Lectures given by Lisa Kaltenegger, Steven Benner, Lynn Rothschild. Credit: Stefanie Lutz
Top: Video conference with Carl Pilcher. Bottom: Forum on education and outreach in Astrobiology. Credit: Stefanie Lutz

In the end of the week there was held a discussion forum on education and outreach in Astrobiology and its social impact. Norm Sleep, Jorge Horvath, Steven J. Dick and Nelio Bézzo were available for any questions.


These are only a few sections of the extensive program. If you would like to know more about the lecturers, talks and the program in general, please have a look here.

Focus groups (12th – 17th Dec)

For this activity we were divided into small interdisciplinary groups to write a realistic research proposal. The topic was completely up to us as long as it was something worth to spend time and money in. Every day we got an hour to work on the proposal (plus some night sessions) and on the last day the proposals were presented to the audience (students and lecturers) and the three best were elected by the judging committee (students only). An extended version of the winner proposals will be submitted to the Astrobiology journal and after the normal peer-reviewing process – fingers crossed – get published in the educational papers section.

Left: From Environment to Cytoplasm: The Inorganic Ingredients for the Origin of Life. Center: HABEBEE – Habitability of Eyeball-Exoearths. Right: Life, Universe, and Everything: An Education Outreach Proposal to Build a Travelling Astrobiology Exhibit. Credit: Rubens Duarte.

Day trip to Campinas (14th Dec)

Synchroton in Campinas. Credit: Stefanie Lutz

On the 14th we went to a day trip to visit the Brazilian Synchroton Light Laboratory in Campinas ( where we got an introduction to how synchroton light works and what the applications are as well as a tour through the facilities. We also visited the adjacent nanotechnology, electron microscopy and biology laboratories.

The trip ended in having dinner at a “churrascaria“ – a typical Brazilian steakhouse where we were offered “rodízio“ service meaning “passadores” – meat waiters – come to your table with knives and a skewer and offer you about 20 different kinds of meat. There was also a massive salad bar for the veggies…

Churrascaria. Credit: Stefanie Lutz

Poster sessions (12th & 15th Dec)

Is there a nicer place to have a poster session than outside in the sunshine at 30 °C surrounded by palm trees? Probably not…


During two sessions we presented our research to the other participants. The beginning of great future collaborations…

18th to 20th December: Field trip

In the morning of the 18th we left São Paulo by bus and were heading to PETAR which stands for Parque Estadual Turístico do Alto Ribeira (Alto Ribeira Tourist State Park) and is a nature preserve located in the south of São Paulo state, it is a patrimony of humanity recognized by UNESCO and houses the largest portion of preserved Mata Atlântica in Brazil. It is known for its more than 300 caves, dozens of waterfalls, rivers, trails, archaeological sites, thousands of birds, mammels and many species of bromeliads, orchids and Juçara palms.

Snakes, lizards, frogs, mammal skulls and fluorescent minerals at Betary Reserve. Credit: Stefanie Lutz
Caves, waterfalls and boia-cross in PETAR. Credit: Rubens Duarte.

In the evening we went to the Betary Reserve where we learnt a lot about the local geology, flora and fauna including bioluminescent fungi. We were also shown the “frog farm”, an extensive collection of mammal skulls, fluorescent minerals and my personal highlight: frozen lizards and snakes.

The next two days we had a very exiting activity program which involved hiking, caving, swimming in natural pools and waterfalls and boia-cross. After having spent a week in a dark and chilly lecture hall at a confined space we have been perfectly adapted to the conditions that awaited us in the caves. Equipped with helmets, head lights and good spirits (and a bit a silly look) we entered the caves which were really impressive. And fortunately we had a geology professor in our group, so we were pleased with a geology lecture in situ. After the caves a couple of waterfalls and natural pools followed which were very inviting for taking a bath. The most exciting part was definitely the boia-cross, equipped with helmets again and big tyres we went down the river, first in a quite organized way, followed by constantly increasing chaos. :-)

Coati. Credit: Stefanie Lutz.
Local pub in PETAR. Credit: Stefanie Lutz.

All the time we were accompanied by the new group member we got immediately on arrival and who constantly tried to steal our chocolate bars… with success as you can see! I was quite impressed to watch that little smart guy unzipping a backpack, finding food and unwrapping it within only a few seconds. Very well adapted to tourists.


And finally we were rounding off amazing 10 days and continuing networking in the local pub before heading back to São Paulo and to the airport. :-)


São Paulo Advanced School in Astrobiology was funded by FAPESP, the São Paulo Research Foundation which is an independent public foundation with the mission to foster research and the scientific and technological development of the State of São Paulo by supporting research project in higher education and research institutions in all fields of knowledge.


FAPESP is a very agile organisation which awards every year plenty of scholarships to foreign scientists to go to Brazil as well as for Brazilians to go abroad, for undergraduate and graduate students as well as Post-Docs. If you are interested have a look at this website.

SPASA 2011

Making connections … and friends!


Many thanks again to all organisers and funding bodies of SPASA 2011! It was an incredible experience for all of us and a plethora of valuable research collaborations as well as friendships have been made. An event which is definitely worth to take part in, so watch out for the next SPASA!



Stefanie Lutz

Stefanie Lutz is a geomicrobiologist working with Prof. Liane G. Benning at the Cohen laboratories (School of Earth and Environment; University of Leeds, UK) investigating life in cold environments. She is interested in survival and adaptation strategies of cryophiles and their preservation in snow and ice. Stefanie gained her diploma in Geoecology from the University of Tuebingen in Germany with her final thesis on the molecular mechanism of microbial nitrate-dependent Fe(II) oxidation supervised by Prof. Andreas Kappler and Dr. Sebastian Behrens.