When my advisor, Dr. Victoria Meadows, suggested I come to Japan with her for the 4th ELSI International Symposium, I couldn't possibly say no. I'd never been to Japan before, and I was excited about the possibility seeing a new country. I applied for student travel support from ELSI and was very happy when I learned my visit would be fully covered.
At the University of Washington, I'm a dual-title PhD student in astronomy and astrobiology in my last year of grad school. My dissertation work is on haze- and cloud-enshrouded worlds: I've worked on measuring gases in the Venus lower atmosphere, and I've modeled early Earth with the organic haze suggested by geochemical evidence to have existed the late Archean eon. The topic of the symposium was "Early Earth, Venus, and Mars: Three Experiments in Biological Origins." There couldn't have been a more perfect fit for my research interests. At every other conference I've been to, I've presented on either my work on Venus or my work on Archean Earth; the ELSI symposium gave me my first chance to discuss both at once!
The first time I'd heard of ELSI was at an AGU meeting where ELSI members were giving away chopsticks labeled with "Earth Life Science Institute" in the exhibit hall. I was intrigued because I hadn't known there was an institute doing astrobiology-related research in Japan. Little did I know that two years later I'd be able see this place in person.
The staff at ELSI were friendly and helpful, and I loved the main building the Institute is housed in. It's bright and open with lots of big windows for sunshine to stream through. I could tell it was new because the light-colored wood making up many of the walls still smelled fresh! The large common area was inviting and very pleasant to sit in to chat with other scientists. Its maroon-colored chalkboard walls nicely matched the comfortable chairs, and I could imagine many productive conversations happening there. We later enjoyed the conference dinner in this common room, and it made for the perfect space to mingle with the other attendees.
The conference itself spanned a wide variety of topics all related to planet formation and habitability. The diverse speakers discussed issues important to astrobiology such as chemistry in protoplanetary disks, the delivery of volatile elements to terrestrial planets, the Martian crustal dichotomy, planetary interiors, photochemistry in planetary atmospheres, possible sites for the origin of life, how life on early earth made its metabolic living, and more. I felt privileged to be able to learn from the speakers and share my research at this international venue. The symposium even gave me the opportunity to strike up a collaboration with a member of the JAXA Akatsuki team: we will conduct coordinated ground- and orbiter-based observations of Venus's atmosphere. I am very grateful to ELSI for enabling all of this to happen.
As for Tokyo, it's an incredible place: so many new foods to try, fantastic public transit, peaceful temples, beautiful gardens, blazing neon lights as bright as day in the middle of the night... Here, new and old, flashy and tranquil coexist side-by-side. Around every corner, there was something new I had never encountered before. These surprises ranged from little things like fish-shaped sweet pastries (delicious!) to the incredible bustle of places like Shibuya Crossing. I was also able to get out of Tokyo to visit the temples at Kamakura and took a train into the beautiful snow-covered nearby mountains.
I thank ELSI for the opportunity to visit Japan and for the enriching symposium. I had a fantastic time and hope I will find an opportunity to come again and see more of this extraordinary country.