I am an astrobiologist interested in understanding how the ingredients that make a world habitable are delivered to terrestrial planets in their host star’s habitable zone. In particular, I am interested in understanding the distribution of volatiles in the early solar system, and how water was delivered to Earth.

I’m involved in large international collaborations both for research and graduate and early career field training. I recently led the characterization of the first interstellar object – discovered by PanSTARRS.

I believe that the key to innovative science involves interdisciplinary research, and I lead the UHNAI Astrobiology research team at UH.


Understanding the origin of Earth’s water requires an interdisciplinary approach, with insight from the fields of protoplanetary disk chemistry, dynamics, cosmochemistry and geochemistry. My team studies deep mantle rocks to determine the isotopic composition of Earth’s primordial water. We combine this with information from space by developing a mission to investigate the origin of Earth’s water by exploring the asteroid belt.

I also study the formation of habitable worlds by looking at the earliest remnants of that process. Comets are icy left-overs of the planet formation that have been preserved cold since the time of formation. Studies of these small objects provide clues about the chemistry and dynamics in our solar system’s protoplanetary disk. I use 8 and 10-m class telescopes on Maunakea in Chile and in space as well as a number of smaller telescopes around the world to study comets. I have been a Co-Investigator on the Deep Impact, EPOXI and Stardust-NeXT missions.



  • ASTR 281 Astrobiology - Are we alone in the universe? Modern astronomical, biological, and geological perspectives on this fundamental question
  • ASTR 740 Astrobiology Seminar - weekly topical lectures and discussions on astrobiology
  • ASTR 630 Solar System (co-taught with other faculty) - Survey of observational data and physical concepts on planets and smaller bodies; formation of planetary systems; solar activity (graduate)
  • ASTR 750 Grant Writing - This course is designed to teach the principles of scientific grant writing by working on actual proposals.


Karen is the chair (2018-present) of the IfA Graduate Program. This involves overseeing the admissions process and recruitment, student progress and evaluation, and developing new initiatives in support of the students. She is working on modernizing the record keeping by working with the Computer science staff to develo9p a database for all grad records, teaching and committee work at IfA. She works closely with the Undergraduate Program Chair.

  • Science Organizing Committee: ACM2017 and AbSciCon 2017
  • External Review Committee - Paris Astrobiotlogy Research University (2016-2019(
  • AAS/DPS Climate Committee (2016-present)
  • Nordic Astrobiology Network US Representatitve (2009-present)
  • Gemini Users Committee (2016-2019)
  • TMT SAC, AURA Representative (2016-2019)
  • TMT Science Working Group (2014-present)
  • NOAO Users Committee (2014-2018)
  • Faculty Personnel Committee (2016-2017)
  • IfA 50th Anniversary Committee (2016-2017)
  • IfA Awards Committee, (2015-2019)
  • Graduate Research Oversight Committee, GROG (2014-present)
  • IfA Undergraduate Program Committee (2014-present)



  • PI for NASA-SSO program: "Testing Solar System Formation Models using Low Activity Objects on Long-Period Orbits", $757.7k
  • PI for NASA PDART program: "Cometary Observation Metadata Archive (COMA), an Interactive Science Portal for Primitive Solar System Objects", $1,030k
  • PI for STScI program: "Oumuamua: Which Way Home?", $82.2K
  • PI for STScI program: "C/2017 O1, ASASSN", $33.6K


  • Arcs Scientist of the year, 2018
  • University of Hawai'i Regent's Medal for Research Excellence, 2015
  • Director's Research Excellence Award, 2013
  • William Tylor Olcott Distinguished Service Award of the AAVSO, 2009
  • National Academy of Science Kavli Foundation Fellow, 2006-1008
  • American Astronomical Society Harold C. Urey Prize, 1994
  • Annie Jump Cannon Award, 1988
  • Heaps Physics Prize, 1981


Graduate Students

  • Larissa Nofi, PhD
  • Casey Brinkman, 699 Research project
  • Erica Bufanda, PhD
  • Tony L. Farnham, PhD 1996, Univ. Maryland, Senior Research Scientist
  • James Bauer, PhD 2003, JPL, NEOWISE Deputy PI, WISE MOPS pipeline lead scientist
  • Luke Dundon, M.S. 2003, Lt. and Asst Command chaplain on an amphibious assault ship
  • Sarah Sonnett, PhD 2013, JPL, NASA Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Heather Kaluna, PhD 2015 - Postdoc, Univ. Hawaii, (Faculty UH Hilo summer 2017)
  • Marielle Dela Cruz, Senior Thesis


  • Jan Kleyna (Scientific Researcher)
  • Jacklyn R. Green (1988-1989), JPL Scientist/Manager
  • Mark Metzger (1994-1995), Senior Research Scientist
  • Olivier Hainaut (1994-1997), ESO, Operations Directorate
  • Yanga Fernandez (1999-2001), Faculty, Univ. Central Florida
  • Audrey Delsanti (2005-2006), Associate Professor, Marsielle University
  • Jacqueline V. Keane (2005-2008), Faculty, Univ. Hawaii, IfA
  • Timm Riesen (2008-2014), University of Bern, Observatory Director
  • Gal Sarid (2009-2012), Univ. Central Florida, Research Associate
  • Bin Yang (2009-2013), ESO Scientific Staff, Chile
  • Henry Hsieh (2010-2013), Research Scientist, PSI

PhD (1987) Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Planetary Astronomy
B.A (1981) Rice University, Space Physics
  • Manx comets-testing dynamical models
  • Comet volatiles (H2O, CO, CO2)
  • Comet/asteroid space missions
  • Characterizing Earth's primordial water
  • Interstellar planetesimals
IfA Mānoa, C-231
(808) 956-6828(808) 956-6828