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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 1 (2016-2017)

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.

Year 1 Summary (as of March 17, 2017)

During my first year as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow, I have begun a research project of my choosing, have taken opportunities to develop my skills in sharing science with others through university teaching and public outreach, and will have completed all the required coursework toward the Ph.D. in chemistry from Caltech.

Complex organic molecules (COMs) are interstellar molecules with six or more atoms containing at least one carbon atom and one hydrogen atom. Nearly 200 COMs have been detected in the interstellar medium, but the formation of COMs is poorly understood. Understanding their formation could provide insight to the fundamental concepts of chemistry as we know it as well as to the chemistry that brought about the emergence of life. To address the problem of COM formation, 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, using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a radio telescope in the Atacama Desert in Chile. Orion KL is home to a diverse collection of astrochemicals, many of which are COMs. Furthermore, many of these COMs are isotopologues—molecules with the same chemical formula but slightly different masses on one or more of the atoms (e.g. ethyl cyanide, or CH3CH2CN, has three carbon atoms with mass number 12, five hydrogen atoms with mass number 1, and one nitrogen with mass number 14, giving a molecular mass of 55, but in its isotopologue 13CH3CH2CN, one of the carbons has a mass number of 13, giving a slightly higher molecular mass of 56). Because the mass distribution varies among different isotopologues, how they rotate and vibrate in space varies too. (Think of two balls connected by a rod teetering on a point in the middle. If you change the mass or weight of one of the balls, even slightly, there is a change in how the ball teeters.) This results in a different radio wave signal that can be detected by ALMA. While my project is in its infancy, quantifying the abundances of these isotpologues could give clues to the formation of these molecules.

In addition to beginning research, I continued work on my radio astronomy website and graduate school blog ( I also volunteered with the undergraduate chemistry club at Caltech as a driver and demonstrator at Pasadena, CA, elementary schools. As a result of taking “Social Media for Scientists”, I am presenting a poster at the ACS National Meeting in San Francisco (April 2017) encouraging chemists to participate in social media as a tool for inreach (sharing science with other scientists) and outreach (sharing science with the public). This is especially important for chemists who are among the least visible scientists on platforms such as Twitter. I have also pursued avenues to better teaching, starting certificates of teaching at Caltech and co-designing and -teaching a chemistry tutorial about astrochemistry (including elements from my research) for undergraduates.

By June 2017, I will have completed all of my coursework toward my degree, having completed the following:

  • Elements of Quantum Chemistry
  • Atomic and Molecular Processes in Planetary Sciences and Astrophysics
  • Social Media for Scientists
  • Planetary Habitability (Astrobiology)
  • Spectroscopy