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Astrobiologist Victoria Meadows Receives the Frank Drake Award

Press Release From: University of Washington
Posted: Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Victoria Meadows, University of Washington professor of astronomy and leader of NASA’s UW-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL), has been named recipient of the 2018 Frank Drake Award from the SETI Institute. She is the first woman to receive the award.

The mission of the nonprofit SETI Institute, founded in 1984, is to “explore, understand and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe.” The Frank Drake award is named for the pioneering astronomer who in 1961 created the Drake Equation, which addressed the relative likelihood of advanced civilizations in space. Many view the equation still as a road map for astrobiology.

Meadows directs the UW’s graduate program in astrobiology and is principal investigator for the VPL, which is administered by the NASA Astrobiology Institute and includes researchers from the UW as well as about two dozen institutions and NASA centers.

Researchers affiliated with the VPL, under Meadows’ guidance, use theoretical modeling to determine whether distant exoplanets might be able to support life. Recent research from the team has explored possible exoplanet biosignatures and false positive signs of life in distant atmospheres and studied early Earth as a stand-in for possibly habitable exoplanets.

“Vikki Meadows is a truly outstanding awardee for the Frank Drake Award,” said John Rummel, chair of the SETI Institute’s science advisory board, whose members choose the award. “She is a leader in the scientific estimation of environments on extrasolar planets, and in the search for signs of habitability and life. As a professor and mentor, she has infused others with her enthusiasm and research expertise -- leading from the front.”

Bill Diamond, SETI Institute president and CEO, added: “It is an honor to recognize Professor Meadows for her innumerable contributions to astrobiology and for her inspiring leadership to students and colleagues alike. Vikki is pioneering our understanding of planetary habitability and the development of technologies and methodologies for biosignature detection and we are delighted to name her as the 2018 recipient of the Drake Award.”

Meadows in turn praised the collaboration and interdisciplinary nature of the work she directs.

“Over the past 18 years the Virtual Planetary Laboratory has transcended interdisciplinary boundaries to inform the upcoming telescopic search for habitable exoplanets and life beyond the solar system,” said Meadows. “Astrobiology addresses questions so big, they can’t be answered by a single researcher or even a single field.

“Instead, it takes a community with a staggering breadth of expertise and techniques, and the willingness to work with and learn from each other. It has been my very great honor to lead this spectacular team of interdisciplinary researchers, and a privilege to engage in such exciting and impactful research!”

Meadows is only the fourth recipient of the Frank Drake Award, the first of which was given to Drake himself in 2001. In 2002 the award went to physicist Charles Townes, a Nobel Prize winner for his work developing masers and lasers; in 2015 William Borucki, astronomer and principal investigator for NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler Mission, received the honor.

Before coming to the UW in 2007, Meadows was a research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and an associate research scientist at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology. She has been a scientist for the NASA EPOXI mission, the Hubble Space Telescope Wide Field and Planetary Camera-2 and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Meadows also is a member of the Science and Technology Definition Team for the Large UV Optical Infrared Survey Telescope concept and chairs NASA’s Exoplanet Analysis Group. She is the 2001 recipient of the JPL’s Lew Allen Award for scientific leadership and has received several NASA group achievement awards. She currently serves on the National Academy of Sciences committees for astrobiology and exoplanets, and the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee. She earned her Ph.D. in physics from the University of Sydney.

She will receive the award and discuss her ongoing work in a public event June 14 at SRI International in Menlo Park, California.

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