Iva Vilović

Welcome to my corner of the universe!
I’m a physicist and astrobiologist exploring the potential for life beyond our home planet. This website is a portal to my scientific endeavors, research insights, and explorations in astrophysics and astrobiology.

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Welcome!

I’m a physicist deeply intrigued by the wonders of space and an astrobiologist exploring the potential for life beyond our home planet.
As a doctoral scholarship holder in the Astrobiology Research Group at the Technische Universität in Berlin, Germany, specializing in superhabitability research, my focus lies in blending laboratory experiments with theoretical climate-chemistry modeling. I aim to shed light on the possibilities of life thriving on distant exoplanets orbiting K-dwarf stars.

The stunning images throughout my page portraying our planet’s night sky are all snapshots taken by various artists in different locations across my homeland, Croatia. You can also view them in the Gallery tab. Enjoy, and come visit!

About Me

Almost every child that had the privilege to see our planet’s night sky growing up has been fascinated by it. I am no exception. Moving around a lot while growing up—Switzerland, Croatia, Vienna, New York City and Berlin—exposed me to diverse cultures and ways of life. But no matter where I was, the stars were my one constant, deepening my love for astronomy.
It started with buying all the weekly DVD’s on our Solar System and the Universe by the Croatian newspaper “Večernji list,” and progressed with childhood astronomy summer schools in the Croatian archipelagos. During high school in New York City, I sought out an additional challenge when I joined Columbia University's Science Honors Program to explore astrophysics and cosmology. Beyond my love for science, dance became my creative outlet during those years—I choreographed modern ballet pieces and got involved in projects uniting communities through dance.
I completed my Bachelor thesis at the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics (AIP) in Potsdam on scaling relations of distant galaxies. For my Master's thesis at the German Aerospace Center in Berlin, I dived into the atmospheres of exoplanets, exploring potential signatures of life using theoretical 1D climate-chemistry models.
I also believe that being a successful scientist means being an effective communicator. For me, communication on different continents and in different languages has always been a foremost aspect of my personality. I am also a huge proponent of bringing science to the public by breaking down complex topics in an easy-to-digest manner! Throughout my university experience, I organized and coordinated a myriad of scientific events through the TU Berlin ScienceMarketing GmbH and the Protocol and Events Team of the president of the TU Berlin, including the annual region-wide Long Night of the Sciences. Now I hold a prestigious doctoral scholarship from the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes, which allows me to communicate my science in seminars, invited talks, congresses, etc. and give lectures on my research as part of the Astrobiology lecture series at the Technische Universität Berlin.
In addition to exploring the habitability of other planets, I strongly emphasize the significance of preserving the habitability of our own planet. I've recently become a part of Astronomers for Planet Earth, a relatively new organization, which I encourage fellow astronomers to consider joining!

Research

For a PDF of my CV, click here!
A full list of my publications is available on NASA ADS

When we talk about life outside our planet, it's crucial to understand how life has evolved on Earth over time. Not because we expect potential extraterrestrial life to be just like us, but because we need a benchmark for comparison. Earth is our only known planet where life not only emerged but also spread and really thrived. Our planet has an incredibly intricate mix of different life forms and ecosystems, and each one has left its own mark in our atmosphere and on the surface.
Earth's cycles—like carbon, nitrogen, and water—have shaped our world into a cozy place for life. Studying these cycles helps us figure out if similar processes are happening on other planets out there. Earth has also had some catastrophic periods, with asteroid impacts and volcanic eruptions. Understanding how life bounced back from these events teaches us about its robustness and how it might survive in various conditions.
This is why I studied the Phanerozoic environmental factors, like oxygen levels, global surface temperatures, runoff rates, and carbon dioxide levels, shaping a detectable biosphere. The findings aid understanding of exoplanetary biospheres, guiding our search for extraterrestrial life through space missions and observations. You can read more about my work on using Earth’s natural history as a framework for habitability here and here.

Light, essential for photosynthesis, has shaped life on Earth around our Sun, a G dwarf star. While much focus in searching for extraterrestrial life has been on cooler red dwarf stars (M dwarfs), they pose challenges like tidal forces and intense radiation. Alternatively, K dwarf stars, abundant and longer-lived than our Sun, offer more stable environments with less radiation. Planets in the habitable zones of K dwarfs, unlike M dwarfs, are less prone to tidal locking, allowing for more stable climates conducive to life. These stars, often termed 'Goldilocks stars,' present promising candidates for potentially hosting life-supporting planets.
In the realm of my research, I explore how photosynthetic organisms behave under alternative light conditions. I conducted experiments in which I exposed these organisms to a simulated K dwarf star spectrum. The results were eagerly awaited and showed that garden cress (Lepidium sativum) had similar growth and photosynthetic efficiency under K dwarf radiation as it does under Earth's solar illumination. More intriguing was the discovery that the cyanobacterium Chroococcidiopsis sp. CCMEE 029, displayed significantly improved photosynthetic efficiency and growth when exposed to K dwarf radiation compared to standard solar conditions. These findings emphasize the potential habitability of exoplanets located within the habitable zones of K dwarf stars and highlight the importance of prioritizing these specific planetary systems in our pursuit of finding and characterizing extraterrestrial life.
You can read more on my experimental design and work with simulated K dwarf radiation in my publication here!

Studying the atmospheres of planets around K dwarf stars and analyzing their spectral characteristics is crucial to determine if these planets could support life. Despite a planet being potentially super-habitable with abundant life, this life might not be visible in observational data.
I am particularly interested in the intersection of laboratory experiments and theoretical modeling. This drives my goal to blend findings from my lab work involving photosynthetic organisms under simulated K dwarf starlight with theoretical models that portray potential exoplanetary atmospheres. By simulating various changes in both planetary and stellar characteristics linked to superhabitable conditions, I seek to establish the limits of superhabitability and identify observable cues indicating a thriving extraterrestrial biosphere.
Stay tuned to read more on my theoretical work! 

At the end of the last century, technological advances made it possible to detect planets outside our solar system. Since the discovery of the first extrasolar planet by Mayor & Queloz in 1995, over 4000 such planets have been confirmed. Many of these are super-Earths orbiting M dwarf stars, which make up around 75% of all the main-sequence stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. This has led to questions about the characteristics of these worlds and the potential for extraterrestrial life. Discussions about planetary habitability often focus on life as we know it on Earth, where molecules like oxygen, nitrous oxide, and methyl chloride are considered biosignatures because they require biological processes to be present in significant amounts. Methane, while produced by biological sources, can also form through abiotic processes, making it a less reliable biosignature on its own. Instead, the simultaneous presence of multiple gases such as ozone, water, and carbon dioxide is considered a strong indicator of life, known as the "triple signature." The detection of both methane and oxygen would also suggest biological activity, as these gases typically react and reduce each other's presence.

The study of exoplanetary atmospheres must also consider the possibility of "false positives" and "false negatives" in detecting life, where abiotic processes might mimic biological signatures or where life might be present but undetected. To better understand the impact of life on a planet's atmosphere, we use "dead" Earth scenarios as benchmarks. Using 1-D coupled climate-chemistry models, I explored scenarios with reduced oxygen, no biomass, and varying carbon dioxide and humidity levels around the M dwarf star AD Leonis. We find that biomass significantly influences atmospheric composition, particularly for gases like chloromethane, which serves as a good biosignature due to its strong dependency on biological activity. We also find that changes in carbon dioxide and surface relative humidity impact planetary transmission spectra more than oxygen levels or biomass alone. The detectability of gases like methane and oxygen is feasible under certain conditions using advanced telescopes like the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). To read more about this study, click here

Media and Selected talks
You can watch my seminar talk at the Center for Astrobiology (CAB), CSIC-INTA based in Madrid, Spain here!
To read my interview for SAGANet on Earth’s natural history as a framework for extrasolar habitability, click here!

03/24 “Lebensfreundlicher als die Erde: Erforschung von Exoplaneten um K-Zwergsterne.” “What's out there? Public lecture series” at the Max-Planck-Institute for Solar System Research (MPS), Göttingen, Germany.

10/23 “Exploring Habitability: From Earth’s Phanerozoic Eon to Exoplanets Orbiting K Dwarf Stars.” Center for Astrobiology (CAB, CSIC-INTA), Madrid, Spain.

01/23 Laboratory of Plant Physiology, Department of Biology, University of Padova, Italy.

10/22 “Earth’s varying habitability and simulated K-star experiments provide insights into superhabitability.” Earth and Planets Laboratory (EPL) Astronomy Seminar. Carnegie Institution for Science. Washington DC, USA.

06/22 “Earth’s varying paleoenvironment and experimental tests provide insights into superhabitability.” Exoplanets & Disks Meeting (EDM), Anton Pannekoek Institute (API) Amsterdam, Netherlands.

09/23, 09/22 and 09/21 Europlanet Science Congress (EPSC) and European Astrobiology Network Association (EANA) in Madrid, Granada and virtual, respectively:
“Testing the viability of simulated K-dwarf radiation for phototrophic life on Earth.”
“The spectrum of K-dwarf stars and their habitability effects.”
“Laboratory Studies to Test Hypotheses of Superhabitable Exoplanets.”
 
09/23 and 09/21 German Astrobiological Society e.V. (DAbG) in Essen and Berlin, Germany, respectively:
“A Stellar Oasis: K-Dwarfs are at least as viable for Photosynthesis as our Sun | Results from garden cress and cyanobacterium experiments.”
“Exploring Habitability: Testing Theories of Superhabitable Exoplanets.”

12/23, 10/22 and 05/22 “Life on other Planets? An Introduction to Astrobiology (Parts I and II).” Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics (ZAA) at the Technische Universität Berlin, Germany.

Contact me on my personal email with this form!

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Address

Technische Universität Berlin
Hardenbergstr. 36A
10623 Berlin, Germany