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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

A Talk with Dr. Fariha Hasan about Astrobiology and Career

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Dr. Fariha Hasan is serving as the Professor of Microbiology at the Department of Microbiology in Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan. She has more than 12 years of teaching and research experience in the field of Microbiology. Her research interests are Microbial Diversity of extreme habitats, polyextremophilic microorganisms, Astrobiology, microbial metabolites and biodegradation of synthetic polymers.

She is an advisor of the Astrobiology Network of Pakistan and very eager to promote this emerging field of science in her country. She has been delivering lectures on astrobiology for three years and recently two of her MPhil students have done their research on astrobiology and their research papers are in process.

Here are some excerpts of her conversation with Scientia’s sub-editor Maham Maqsood, a student of Quaid e Azam University Islamabad.

Dr Fariha Hasan while delivering a lecture on Astrobiology
Dr. Fariha Hasan while delivering a lecture on Astrobiology

Let us know about your academics? What kind of hobbies and interests do you have?

I cleared my Masters, M. Phil, and Ph.D. from Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad and since 2004, I have been working here as teacher and researcher in microbiology. Usually, people think that only youngsters have hobbies, but unlike others of my age, I have managed to maintain a few of interesting hobbies after all these years, like book reading especially English classics, stamp collection, sketching, artwork, and photography.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career?

I started research on glaciers in 2006 and still pursuing it due to my interest. Later, I did my Postdoctoral from the UK in the same field. It has been around 10 years now and I think that has been one of the most important milestones of my career. I was very lucky to do my Postdoc there with a group whom I am still in contact and continue to collaborate by sending my Ph.D. students over to them.

Can you explain what Astrobiology is about?

The word Astrobiology is made by the combination of Astronomy and Biology, in which we question and imagine life in space; planet or any other celestial body. What are the past and the future and what kind of things are possible which we can call life. But before going into depth one has to define ‘life’. Beyond science jargons it can define ‘anything that can reproduce, sustain, and carry on information’ or simply ‘survive and multiply’, is life.

One can link it with Astrobiology in that, what we see and imagine in our minds about the extraterrestrial life. A common man thinks of it as something about a creature with one, eye, five hands, weird body, and vice versa. In reality, extraterrestrial life is what we haven’t seen and cannot be imagined clearly. Astrobiology is something that aspires to search and answer such queries about the possibilities of life in our solar system or beyond the universe.

Dr Fariha delivering a lecture at Quad e Azam University Islamabad
At Quad e Azam University Islamabad

How did you develop an interest in Astrobiology?

In my childhoodI used to watch movies/shows like Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Space 1999 and Star Trek. Consequently, these shows helped my imagination to grow, but I just wanted to study biology. When graduated, I started working on research projects like biodegradation and the involved enzymes. Later, I decided to find a way where I can combine my interest with research in studies because then I was free.

My interest in Astrobiology was very apparent and I thought that I can pursue, but as an undergrad, you couldn’t study physics and biology together. Rather I chose microbiology and researched on extremophiles i.e. microorganisms living in extreme environments. So while teaching it, I had those concepts which I was able to take into several directions. Meanwhile, during multiple conferences organized by European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, I got a chance to meet a few of Astrobiologists who helped me to keep my interest and soon I started teaching Astrobiology. Now I have two students of M. Phil who have done their research on Astrobiology and their papers are in pipeline.

What is the Astrobiology Network of Pakistan and how were you introduced to it?

This network is a very good initiative in Pakistan. I came to know about ABNP while I was teaching the Astrobiology course that I have been doing for around three years now. Interestingly, when I offered that course for the first time, a lot of students in the class sat as if they were watching a movie. They had something else in mind; like I would take them to a fancy fantasyland and show a movie! Actually, I did ask them to watch “The Martian” which was released during that time. But they wanted to know what it actually is about.

So, when I started teaching them, the concepts got clear as well as how it can relate to other branches of science like Biology to Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics. Until now we only have a hypothesis about extraterrestrial life and we still do not know whether other planets are habitable or not? Though, there is no evidence so far. I think a network like ABNP in Pakistan will inspire others to develop and clear concepts. We should introduce it to a larger audience, working through it step by step. I found a great passion for youngsters when I delivered my very first lecture on Astrobiology.

I think this is a good platform which youngsters can join, as well as experienced individuals. Everyone should be an equal contributor, share knowledge and take it in the right direction to make this step become successful. To quote Neil Armstrong when he stepped on the moon, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.

Can a person having little experience or background in Astrobiology be a part of it?

 Yes, they can for sure! Because Astrobiology isn’t completely based on a specific subject but having a wide spectrum of different subjects. Like I am a biologist and from my perspective, I can see that Physics matters as much as Biology does. For example, we study the movement of the planets, the plasma, light, color spectrum, and things like that are important. Similarly, unless one didn’t study the organic or inorganic chemistry, he would unable to get the idea of how connected is the chemistry of the universe with the physics, since Chemistry is the basis of life. Being a Muslim we know life won’t be possible with just chemical combinations only until a Superior source adds the soul into it.

So the force that does all of this is Allah. We can try to initiate a chemical reaction in a flask, take the required elements of life like Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorus, Sulphur that we call CHNOPS in Astrobiology that are the building blocks of all life forms, but even after mixing all these elements, we can’t make a life.

We need a force and that force is a supernatural being (Allah). Other biological and physical factors show that almost all subjects are involved in life. Being a biologist you need to study or have an in-depth analysis, as well as basic concepts about Astrophysics, Astrochemistry, Astroecology, and Astrogeology would suffice. 

Dr Fariha Hasan at Quad e Azam University Islamabad
At Quad e Azam University Islamabad

Can you give us a timeline of when Astrobiology was conceived as a proper subject?

 As a subject, the terminology was conceived in 1953 by a Russian astronomer Gavriil Tikhov. Originally, it was just like another subject Exobiology. Exobiology is also about the life that comes from places other than earth but Astrobiology is more suitable as Earth itself is a planet too and it has life in it. So the study of life on Earth is also a part of Astrobiology as we are also a part of the solar system and ultimately the universe. From the Astrobiology perspective, life on earth also comes within the present and future of the universe, and this isn’t explained in Exobiology so Astrobiology is a wider and more appropriate approach.

Slowly the concept came into limelight that if life can start here, it can also happen anywhere else in the universe, which led to the establishment of the concept of ‘panspermia’ which states that life is present in space, planets, and planetary bodies and spread through dust particles or other materials like comets, asteroids. Since then it has been spreading across the universe. Many questions are still awaited to be answered.

What do you think how can we bring Astrobiology into the mainstream as an essential subject in Pakistan?

 Until now certainly, there were no steps to introduce Astrobiology in the mainstream. At most someone would occasionally deliver a lecture or two. The Astrobiology Network of Pakistan has the potential of becoming a big platform. Furthermore, there should be an awareness program including but not limited to lecture series, student activities, and field trips at different places for enthusiasts. I joined it as a forum from where we can spread more awareness and it can blossom into a bigger tree.

I would suggest monthly visits to ABNP chapter leads or volunteers to schools/colleges and public places. Normally people target private schools and I think everyone should be made aware of and be given an opportunity to excel with their interests.

This network is open for all to join regardless of their background, subject, and interests.  I think there is a need to target wider and younger audience because now I see that at the undergraduate or even at M. Phil level students don’t have the basic knowledge. So we have to clear the basic concepts step by step without going through the complex concepts indirect but developing interest, in the beginning, is necessary.

Is there any advice that you would like to give to those who wish to pursue this field?

First of all, expand your interest and imagination. One needs to understand concepts and join community groups like ABNP which is providing a platform, international and national researchers and other discipline-related enthusiasts are part of, also there are experts from NASA and communication is easily accessible.

One can find a lot of opportunities and different activities, those will eventually help to quench their thirst. If we don’t answer the questions of a student, his/her interest doesn’t develop and ultimately it will appear as discouraging. ABNP is a group of seniors and experienced professionals as well as students from different disciplines, who are eager to help and sort out the confusions. The next step would be to expand outreach so interest will develop and no one is left unsatisfied.

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