UTulsa professor awarded grant for solar system ocean world research - The University of Tulsa
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UTulsa professor awarded grant for solar system ocean world research

The University of Tulsa’s Brett A. McKinney, Ph.D., was awarded the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) grant from NASA, the sole national EPSCoR grant awarded in Oklahoma for 2024. UTulsa will receive $750,000 over three years in grant funding. 


The winning proposal was a joint venture involving UTulsa collaborators Hema Ramsurn Ph.D., Associate Professor and A. Paul Buthod Endowed Chair in Chemical Engineering, and Mohamed Fakhr, Ph.D., Professor of Biological Sciences. Entitled “Biosignature Detection of Solar System Ocean Worlds using Science-Guided Machine Learning,” the proposal combines scientific/mechanistic modeling and novel experimental data with machine learning into a science-guided machine learning (SGML) approach for solar system biosignature detection and for modeling ocean world geochemistry in the presence and absence of microbial life. 

“Understanding evidence for the habitability of icy ocean worlds in our solar system and exploring the potential existence of microbial life within their ice shells or liquid oceans is key to elucidating the origins and evolution of life on Earth,” said McKinney, Ph.D., Warren Endowed Chair of Bioinformatics at The University of Tulsa. 

The EPSCoR grant will allow for experiments to generate valuable data for training machine learning models for biosignature prediction. Specifically, the focus is predicting biosignatures for celestial bodies within the solar system that exhibit potential habitability, such as the icy ocean moons Europa and Enceladus. A sister project involves developing these models for use on spacecraft for autonomous science. 

Photograph of Brett McKinney
Brett A. McKinney, Ph.D.

To achieve these experimental and computational goals and create an SGML tool, the team will bring together broad interdisciplinary expertise in geochemistry, microbiology, astrobiology, planetary science, bioinformatics, computational modeling, and machine learning from institutions across Oklahoma including The University of Tulsa (UTulsa), The University of Oklahoma (OU), Oklahoma State University (OSU) and Northeastern Oklahoma (NEO) A&M as well as NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. 

“The University of Tulsa is incredibly honored by this grant. The research being done by McKinney and his team will be imperative to the future exploration of our solar system,” said Andreas A. Polycarpou, dean of UTulsa’s College of Engineering & Computer Science. 

EPSCoR establishes partnerships with government, higher education and industry designed to effect lasting improvements in a state or region’s research infrastructure, research and development (R&D) capacity and national R&D competitiveness. To learn more, click here.