The Blue Marble (photo: NASA Earth Observatory, by Reto Stöckli, Render by Robert Simmon. Based on data from the MODIS Science Team)

Ask a PI — the principal investigator leading a science grant — studying the origins of life about how it all began and you may get some forceful answers. But exactly which answers depends on the intellectual camp the PI belongs to. For example, some origins of life researchers work in an “information first” framework, in which genetic information plays the leading role. For others, energy acquisition or “encapsulation” are the characteristics of life that likely arose first.

To an outsider, all these ideas might seem like different parts of the same elephant. But the divisions among the different camps have become deep enough that early career researchers worry about straying into the wrong dogma camp.

Maria Kalambokidis, a graduate student in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota, explains, “If one of us is proposing research that falls outside of some of this dogma, and if it's reviewed by a panel of reviewers that subscribe to a particular hypothesis for origins of life, will the research get shot down?”

One solution, she and other early career researchers in the field believe, might be to intentionally foster a community that heals divisions, promotes cross-pollination, and includes new voices from, say, biology or physics. To that end, Kalambokidis, along with SFI postdocs Natalie Grefenstette and Cole Mathis, co-organized a March 9 – 11 meeting at the Santa Fe Institute titled, “New Frontiers in the Origins of Life.” Some three dozen graduate students and postdocs aimed to bridge the dogma divide.

Grefenstette hoped the participants could honestly examine their own biases and dogma. Also, given how little we can know for sure about the origins of life on Earth, let alone elsewhere in the universe, she wanted to see participants engage in constructive conversations about what successful research looks like.

As Kalambokidis jests, “I think what’s surprising for people who don't study the origins of life is, how could you have dogma about something that you hardly know anything about? Really, you know, we don't know how life emerged.”

This workshop was co-organized by Caitlin McShea, program manager for the National Science Foundation Grant Number 1745355, under the Research Coordination Networks (RCN) program (RoL: RCN for Exploration of Life’s Origins), which funded the meeting.

SFI will host two additional Origins of Life meetings in early spring.