What is life? How did it develop on Earth? Where else might we find it? These challenging questions will be explored by astrobiologist Dr. Pamela Conrad of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a pair of free, public lectures this month.

Conrad, who describes astrobiology as "the coolest thing anyone can do," will discuss "Astrobiology: Developing Methods for Detecting Life" on Thursday, April 15, at JPL's von Karman Auditorium, and Friday, April 16, at Pasadena City College's Forum. Both lectures begin at 7 p.m., with seating on a first- come, first-served basis.

Conrad sees JPL as the high note in her unique and varied career. She earned a bachelor's degree in applied music and a master's degree in composing from George Washington University, Washington, D.C. While earning her living as an opera singer, film score composer, and even a TV producer and director, Conrad yearned for her true love -- science. She returned to school, earned a Ph.D. in geology, and did her research as a pre-doctoral fellow at the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory in Washington, D.C. Her research involved high-pressure mineral physics, which she describes as "squishing things and studying the results."

When JPL offered her a job in its astrobiology unit, Conrad said "It was music to my ears. I'm back to science, where I should have been in the first place." She sings the praises of astrobiology, which attempts to develop methods for detecting life and to define whether rocks are "animal, vegetable or mineral."

JPL is one of 11 NASA centers taking part in the agency's Astrobiology Institute. Astrobiology blends the sciences of astronomy, chemistry, biology and geology, which Conrad sees as "the perfect harmony." Astrobiology techniques will be used to investigate samples returned from Mars and other extraterrestrial locations, and numerous other future space missions will benefit from astrobiological research, including NASA's Origins Program, and explorations of Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Titan.

JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif.

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