December 2014




Ophthalmologists lifelong passion for the cosmos

by Lauren Lipuma EyeWorld Staff Writer


Lama Al-Aswad, MD


An image of the Rosetta spacecraft and the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet taken on October 7, 2014, when the 2 were approximately 10 miles apart.

Source: European Space Agency

Physician spends spare time learning about the origin of life in the universe

Lama Al-Aswad, MD, associate professor of ophthalmology, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, always believed that life on Earth was not unique. As a child, looking at the stars, Dr. Al-Aswad wondered if there was life on other planets. This curiosity led her to pursue an interest in astronomy and astrobiologythe study of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe. I was always wonderingare we here alone? Could there be other beings across solar systems? It makes no sense that we are alone here in this universe, Dr. Al-Aswad said. Although we like to feel that were special, I dont think that we are. Cosmologists such as Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking have argued that it is unlikely that life exists solely on Earth, despite the fact that humans have yet to find it.

A passion for outer space

Throughout her life, Dr. Al- Aswad has been fascinated by space exploration, especially the search for extraterrestrial life and efforts to understand the structure of the cosmos. She has paid particular attention over the years to the efforts of NASA and other space agencies to search for habitable zones and evidence of life in other solar systems. At one point, Dr. Al-Aswad considered becoming an astronaut, but as a native of Syria, she was ineligibleNASA astronauts must be citizens of the United States. Dr. Al-Aswad instead decided to study medicine, but she has pursued her interest in astronomy in her spare time. She continues to follow space voyages closely, and is currently following NASAs MESSENGER mission to Mercury, Curiosity Mars rover, and the European Space Agencys Rosetta mission. Launched in 2004, Rosetta is a robotic space probe designed to land on and analyze the composition of the Churyumov- Gerasimenko comet, nearly 300 million miles from Earth. Rosetta reached the comet in August 2014, and the first signals from the comets surface were acquired in November. Investigators hope to search for organic molecules and nucleic acids that may determine if comets contributed to the formation of life on Earth. Its fascinating to know that life could be transmitted from one place to another, or from one solar system to another, Dr. Al-Aswad said. Theres a theory that water might have come to Earth through comets, so thats one of the things theyre looking for when they land the probe. NASA has always been an inspiration to Dr. Al-Aswad, and she is excited to see what the agency will discover about extraterrestrial life. I dont think in my lifetime, but in future lifetimes, we might figure out were not alone, she said. The intense and diverse knowledge of biology that Dr. Al-Aswad acquired in her time studying medicine has helped her understand the fundamentals of astrobiology and contributed to her curiosity about the origin of life. Her interest goes beyond the molecular basis of biology, however, to astrophysics and the formation of the conditions necessary to support life. Dr. Al-Aswad is particularly interested in the recent advances in planetary science that have raised the estimates of the number of habitable zones around starsthe regions around a star within which planets with sufficient atmospheric pressure can support liquid water at their surfaces.

Keeping up with astronomy

Despite her busy schedule as a glaucoma specialist, Dr. Al-Aswad makes time every day to learn something new about astronomy. Every morning she visits NASAs Astronomy Picture of the Day site, where NASA features a different photo or video of the universe with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer. Studying astronomy and astrobiology for so much of her life has given Dr. Al-Aswad a broader perspective of human life on Earth. I think it puts things in perspective and makes you feel that the world does not rotate around you, but youre actually a part of it, she said. We think were very significant, but in a way were insignificant when you look at how big the universe is and the potential of there being life somewhere else. Exploring the nature of the universe has also imparted Dr. Al-Aswad with a sense of cosmic responsibility. I think for all of us we need to think of the whole universe, not only our Earth, and to try to protect it as much as we can, she said. We could be damaging our own world if we dont take precautions and if we dont become more green.

Editors note: Dr. Al-Aswad has no financial interests related to her comments.

Contact information


Go to to see NASAs Astronomy Picture of the Day.

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