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Graduate School: Applying, Living, Thesising

The Professional Student is a blog about everything grad school from the application process to my experiences living as a grad student, being a parent in grad school, and researching the role of chemistry in the evolution of our universe.

NSF GRFP Activity Report: Year 2 (2017-2018)

Olivia Wilkins

NSF Graduate Research Fellows submit an Annual Activity Report summarizing how the grantee progressed during the previous year as an NSF fellow.

Because the NSF GRFP is federally-funded, I am making it public here to share how my graduate school experience has been impacted by the grant, just like I did last year.

Year 2 Summary (as of February 27, 2018)

During my second year as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow, I have been working on astrochemistry research and have participated in several outreach opportunities.

Complex organic molecules (COMs) are interstellar molecules with six or more atoms containing at least one carbon atom. Nearly 200 COMs have been detected in the interstellar medium, but their formation is poorly understood. Understanding COM formation could provide insight into the fundamental concepts of chemistry as we know it, including that which brought about life.

To address the problem of COM formation, I am working on two pieces of this astronomical puzzle. First, I am looking to the Kleinmann-Low nebula of the constellation Orion (Orion KL), a star-forming region and chemical factory in the Milky Way galaxy, to understand the formation of methanol. Methanol (CH3OH) is thought to be a key player in the formation of more complex (i.e. bigger) molecules containing oxygen (O), thus understanding how it forms is a first step in elucidating more complex chemistries. To this end, I successfully applied for time on the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) during ALMA cycle 5 (Project ID: 2017.1.01149.S). Observations for this project are complete and are being processed at the time of this report.

The second piece of the puzzle is placing tighter constraints on the origins of oxygen-bearing COMs during the early stages of star formation. Experimental and theoretical investigations into the origins of such molecules have pointed toward formation on the surfaces of icy dust grains (versus a gas-phase formation); however, these hypotheses have not been confirmed observationally. I intend to fill this gap by comparing the observed gas-phase and ice-bound chemistries of protostars, or clouds of gas and dust in which a star is forming. By comparing the trends in these environments, I can confirm whether observed patterns match predictions by experimental and theoretical studies. Progress has been made by selecting protostellar targets through spectral models and writing proposals for time on the Effelsberg Radio Telescope (accepted: grade 2, where 1 = best and 5 = rejected) and the Green Bank Telescope (decision pending).

In addition to beginning research, I continued work on my radio astronomy website and graduate school blog ( I have participated in several outreach opportunities, including science nights at Pasadena, CA, elementary schools with the Caltech chemistry club; Science Train in which the Caltech Astronomy outreach group chats with riders on the Los Angeles Metro about astrophysics; and Project Scientist events for young (4-to-12 years old) girls, namely as a STEM SuperStar (visiting scientist and presenter at a summer academy) and expedition host (coordinated three sessions, while hosting one, about planetary science for a two-hour afternoon visit for 30 girls). I have also pursued avenues to more effective teaching by working towards two certificates in university teaching at Caltech, co-designing and -teaching an astrochemistry tutorial for undergraduates (first offered Spring 2017, offered in Spring 2018 again), co-authoring a paper1 about a writing assignment implemented in the astrochemistry tutorial, and serving as co-director for the Caltech Project for Effective Teaching (CPET, a group of graduate students and post-docs striving to become more effective educators while helping others do the same through evidence-based teaching practices).

1O. H. Wilkins and C. F. Buzard (2018). Integrating Course Material and Application: A Progressive Writing Assignment Applied to an Astrochemistry Tutorial. Prompt, 2(1), 26-37