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Die gemeinsame Nutzung der Ergebnisse

A (Ful)bright Future

Die gemeinsame Nutzung der Ergebnisse

Olivia Wilkins

Research is most valuable when communicated, so I set off for the 252nd American Chemical Society (ACS) National Meeting in Philadelphia to share die Ergebnisse from my Fulbright research experience. The ACS National Meeting is a five-day conference that occurs both in the spring and fall anually. While the conference is fun and a great place to get cool chemistry swag and hear about all sorts of research in the field of chemistry, it is also overwhelming; each division (and subdivision) has their own mini-conference in one of the many convention center concourses (or in the case of physical chemistry this time around, in the meeting rooms of the DoubleTree in Center City).

 Me, in front of my poster

Me, in front of my poster

I spent Sunday of the ACS meeting catching up with my friend Alex Kasznel from undergrad (he gave a talk on the work he is doing at Penn on collagen in bio-engineering) and my former professors Sarah St. Angelo and Rebecca Connor (who were each giving posters about some of the projects they are working on for classes at Dickinson). I spent my first night away from baby Günther ever at my cousin's and his wife's in North Philly. Monday morning, I hit up the exposition (free NASA swag, anyone?) with Rebecca (it will take a while getting used to calling my former undergrad professors by their first names, which is by request... and teasing from another ACS attendee who immediately identified me as a recent grad because of my formalities) and Susanna Widicus Weaver, an astrochemist at Emory University. Both are Caltech alumni and were/are grad school BFFs. That afternoon, I hit up the DoubleTree for a couple of astrochem talks, which happened to be by JPL scientists. This was exciting for me because it means that there might just be opportunities for me at JPL in astrochemistry while I am at Caltech!

After I left the talks on Monday, I headed back to my parents' to replenish our stash of Muttermilch and spend some quality time with my gents before heading back to the meeting Wednesday. Wedenesday night, I presented my poster after grabbing coffee with Alex Kasznel.

My poster for the Physical Chemistry Poster Session at the ACS meeting

My poster was basically a testament to me learning first-hand the earlier steps in identifying interstellar molecules, which is what I had set out to do in my Fulbright year. When I had presented a poster at the Denver 2015 meeting about the molecules I identified in protostars, I had received a lot of questions about how molecules could be identified in the first place. Thus this time around, I answered those questions.

While the purpose of my poster was to explain the methods, I also showed some real-life rationale and results for one of the complex molecules I studied while at die Universität zu Köln: n-propyl cyanide. (I also looked at 2-methylbutyronitrile and 3-methylbutyronitrile, which have n-propyl cyanide as a backbone.)

For readers interested in some science: A common question I received was about why the glass cells in the experimental set-up are so long (7 meters or 23 feet). The radio waves that come from the synthesizer pass through the cells forwards and backwards before being collected by the detector, meaning the waves travel a path that is 28 meters (or 92 feet) long before any absorption is measured! The answer is because of the Beer-Lambert Law, commonly seen in general chemistry in the context of UV-vis[ible light] absorption; the law's principles hold for microwave absorption too, meaning that a longer pathlength (in principle) results in higher absorption (so larger signal in this case). Measuring the rotations of molecules such as n-propyl cyanide requires a lot of sensitivity because the signals are relatively faint, hence having a long path-length increases the signal-to-noise ratio and yields better results.

On Thursday, I went to talks about theory in the morning and astrobiology in the afternoon. The most exciting talk by far was by Brett McGuire, a former graduate student in Geoff Blake's group at Caltech and current Jansky Postdoctoral Fellow at the NRAO. Brett gave a talk about a paper that was recently published in Science about the discovery of the first chiral molecule in space. Chiral molecules are those that are identical but non-superimposable, like your hands. If you place your hands, both palms-up, on top of each other, it is impossible for your hands to line up. Your thumbs, your wrists, etc. will never all line up perfectly. Moreover, just as your hands don't function in the same way (even if you are ambidextrious, you can't use a left-handed baseball mitt on your right hand), chiral molecules had different chemical properties as well. In astrochemistry, this is groundbreaking!!! This is a new level of complexity in interstellar chemistry, making it an even more exciting time to be in the field.

From talking about the goals of my Fulbright research being met to hearing about the biggest thing in astrochemistry (and from the group I'm hoping to join in grad school), the 252nd National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (on Twitter via #ACSPhilly and #ACSPhiladelphia) was an awesome week.