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Undergraduate Courses

ASTRON 2B03 The Big Questions Learn More

Ultimate questions in modern science are surveyed with emphasis on physical sciences: origin of space-time, elements and structure in the cosmos (stars, planets, galaxies).

Runs Yearly in the Fall term
Instructor – Laura Parker

BIOPHYS 3D03 Origin of Life Learn More

The roles of replication, metabolism and compartmentalization in the Origins of Life. Prebiotic chemistry. The RNA World and ribozymes. The earliest traces of life in the fossil record. Astrobiology: could life exist on other planets?

Runs Yearly in the Winter term
Instructor – Ralph Pudritz

Collaborative Graduate Program in Astrobiology

Astrobiology is the prime research directive for the Origins Institute. To advance scientific discovery and knowledge about the origin(s) of ‘life’ as well as its evolution and distribution in the universe, we created the first astrobiology graduate curriculum in Canada. Our program is a collaboration among five academic units at McMaster University – Biochemistry & Biomedical Sciences, Biology, Chemistry & Chemical Biology, Physics & Astronomy, and the School of Geography & Earth Sciences – and six graduate programs, those run by the academic units as well as the Chemical Biology Graduate Program.

The Astrobiology portion is carried out by the Origins Institute in close collaboration with the five home academic units. Some course work and research seminars in astrobiology (see below), as well as Astrobiological research, lie at the heart of the program. Successful completion of the program will provide students an ‘Astrobiology Specialization’ to complement their home degree, and graduates will be qualified to pursue further research and work in the discipline and field.

The Origins Institute has established an excellent research and education environment in astrobiology dating back to 2005 with its first international Astrobiology and the Origins of Life conference-workshop. Most Origins Institute members with an interest in astrobiology already have close contact with one another through research and education collaborations, as well as research collaborations with national and international communities. The Origins Institute is a member of the NSERC Canadian Astrobiology Training Program (CATP) and is linked to the NASA National Astrobiology Institute (NAI) through a Canadian network.

Faculty members with the Origins Institute are either core or adjunct members in the five collaborating departments in the Faculties of Science and Health Sciences at McMaster University.

Our graduate program – the first of its kind in Canada – provides opportunities for students to work on multidisciplinary teams with exceptional faculty researchers from across McMaster.

Our students are searching for answers to one of the great questions – are we alone in the cosmos? The search for life beyond Earth is a primary goal of Astrobiology and that quest is rapidly accelerating thanks to four major scientific advances fueled by technological breakthroughs.

In 1995, astronomers discovered the first planet another star. Since then, thousands of exoplanets have been discovered and thousands of potential exoplanets have been found by the Kepler Observatory.

Microbiologists have uncovered new organisms that exist in the most extreme conditions here on Earth and could survive on other planets.

Space and planetary scientists continue to launch spacecraft and rovers to explore planets and moons in our solar system.

Researchers continue to make important advances in prebiotic chemistry and synthetic biology.

Our collaborative graduate program in Astrobiology provides deep training in a home field together with thesis and research work in Astrobiology. Students work with Origins Institute faculty members and fellow students, take courses, meet visiting scientists, and complete thesis work and research papers.

Students have full access to the research labs and specialized equipment of participating faculty members. On-site facilities at McMaster University include the Biointerfaces Institute, Centre of Excellence in the Study of Surfaces and Colloids, and high performance computing through SHARCNET. Off-site facilities, including observatories, are also available.

The Origins Institute Centre provides a dedicated space for students from different disciplines to work collaboratively and share their research.

Prospective graduate students first need to be accepted for graduate degree work in one of the six collaborating graduate programs.

Students who successfully complete the Astrobiology program will receive an ‘Astrobiology Specialization’ to complement their home degree and will be qualified to pursue further research and work in the field.

Students apply to the collaborative program in Astrobiology by applying to their chosen home program via McMaster’s School of Graduate Studies, by this link:

Applicants indicate their interest in the Astrobiology collaborative program and provide a written statement (as part of their application through the SGS link above) of no more than 500 words describing their interests in astrobiology and the research that they would be interested in pursuing.

International applicants will be required to submit an official statement of English language test results. We recommend that students should have a minimum of a one term (3 unit) course in ONE of the following subjects: Astronomy, Biochemistry, or Geology/Geochemistry.

Home programs conduct their standard review processes for acceptance, then forward successful applications to the collaborative program in Astrobiology for review.

Students receive a joint offer once they are accepted by both the home program and the Origins Institute.

Admission Requirements for Master’s Degree

  • Same as the requirements for an M.Sc. in the chosen home program.
  • A written statement of interest in the collaborative program in Astrobiology (M.Sc. level) in 500 words or less.

Admission Requirements for Ph.D. Degree

  • Same as the requirements for a Ph. D in the chosen home program
  • A written statement of interest in the Collaborative Program (Ph.D. level) in 500 words or less.M.Sc. students showing outstanding research potential and high academic standing may be transferred to the Ph.D. program. Transfers are in keeping with the procedures followed by the home department. Section 2.1.2 of the application site outlines how Masters students may transfer to the Ph.D.
  • Comprehensive exams for the Ph.D. degree will be administered by the home program.

Students must complete requirements for the appropriate home program.

Required courses are defined according to prescriptions for each home program.

Additionally, students are required to take a one term, ORIGINS 701 Survey of Astrobiology course and ORIGINS 705 Research Seminar and Journal Club course, by participating in the bi-monthly Astrobiology Journal Club.

Doctoral students are required to complete (one term) course work from outside their research area, from the Astrobiology course list.

  • Biochem 711 – Special Topics in Microbiology and Biomolecular science
  • Biology 6DD3 – Molecular Evolution
  • Biology 720 – Bioinformatics
  • Chemistry 799 – Pre-biotic Chemistry
  • Earthsci 753 – Advanced Environmental Geochemistry
  • Earthsci 761 – Advanced Glacial Sedimentology
  • Physics 6S03 – Introduction to Molecular Biophysics
  • Physics 756 – Special Topics in Biophysics
  • Physics 775 – Planetary Astronomy

With supervisory committee permission, the courses below and entries in the Astrobiology course list could count toward requirements for a home program.

  • Origins 701 – Survey of Astrobiology
  • Origins 705 – Astrobiology Research Seminar and Journal Club

Typical progress through the Collaborative Program in Astrobiology is presented immediately below.

Level Expected Progress
M.Sc. Year 1
  • ORIGINS 701 Survey of Astrobiology
  • ORIGINS 705 Research Journal Seminar Course
  • (Participation in Astrobiology Journal Club)
  • Research
M.Sc. Year 2
  • Participation in Astrobiology Journal Club
  • Research
  • Defence
Ph.D. Year 1
  • Coursework equivalent to a 1/2 course (or two 1/4 course modules) from the ASTROBILOGY COURSE LIST
  • Participation in Astrobiology Journal Club
  • Research
Ph.D. Year 2
  • Participation in Astrobiology Journal Club
  • Research
  • comprehensive
Ph.D. Year 3
  • Participation in Astrobiology Journal Club
  • Research
Ph.D. Year 4
  • Participation in Astrobiology Journal Club
  • Research
  • Defence

Seminar Requirement

All students are required to attend the Origins Institute Colloquium series. This is an important resource for students, as they will have the opportunity to interact directly with distinguished leaders and scientists in the field. Such interactions enrich the astrobiology learning experience far beyond what is available in their home departments.

Ph.D. Comprehensive Requirement

The Ph.D. comprehensive requirement must be completed within 2 years from entering the Ph.D. program (or the deadline prescribed by the home program).

Astrobiology Graduate Program Courses

Origins 701-Survey in Astrobiology Learn More

This one-term course involves a current survey over the major components in Astrobiology, comprising topics in three overlapping areas: astrophysics and planetary science, geochemistry and geology, and biochemistry and biology.

Origins 705 – Astrobiology Research Seminar and Journal Club Learn More

This biweekly seminar is focused on readings and presentations from the current literature in Astrobiology as well as on research projects conducted by Origins Institute members.