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A compilation of stories, telescopes, internship resources, and other things radio astronomy.

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.

From (star) dust to (star) dust

Olivia Wilkins

I’m gearing up to leave for a two-week-long jaunt in Europe (WOO!), the first week of which will be in northern Spain for the weeklong International Summer School in Astrobiology. This year’s theme is “From Astrochemistry to the Origin of Life", so I am of course ecstatic about being accepted to participate!

Being able to go to the summer school required an application consisting of a statement of purpose and a letter of recommendation from my advisor. Back in March, I had a heck of a time figuring out what to put into this statement and knowing how to tailor it to my audience. Should it be super formal? Really dry? Could I be creative?

Former Caltech Planetary Sciences graduate student Mike Wong graciously sent me his own statement from when he attended a couple years ago, giving me the burst of inspiration I needed to write the thing. Mike is also the reason I heard about the summer school in the first place, so THANK YOU, MIKE!

Anyway, I wanted to share my statement of purpose with you because I’m quite proud of it. :)



“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I remember eagerly standing in line, hearing those words over and over again as a child, anxiously waiting until it was my turn to be marked with ashes on the center of my forehead. Attending Catholic school through adolescence, I was taught that Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten season, was a solemn holiday to remind Christians of their sinfulness and mortality, calling them to repent. As a kid, however, Ash Wednesday was an exciting day to see whose ashes most resembled a cross and to giggle at the dark smudges above a friend’s brow.

My childhood fascination with this cycle of dust faded away as I transitioned to study chemistry and mathematics as an undergraduate student at Dickinson College. As a summer research assistant at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (now Green Bank Observatory) in West Virginia, I unknowingly entered a field in which I would find renewed interest in how dust is cycled through life. While in Green Bank, I not only rekindled a passion for large radio telescopes first sparked on a road trip when I was seven, but I also found a love for science communication, interdisciplinary science, international collaborations, … and astrochemistry.

Now as a doctoral candidate and astrochemist at Caltech under the mentorship of Dr. Geoffrey A. Blake, I am looking to help constrain the formation of complex organic molecules such as methanol and methyl formate, the bulk of which are thought to form in the icy mantles of tiny interstellar dust grains. As these grains grow, so does the accompanying chemical complexity throughout the stages of star and planet formation. Understanding the chemistry in the earliest stages of star formation—for example in molecular clouds or protostars, both of which are the topics of my research—is thought to be a crucial step in untangling how prebiotic chemistry is seeded in the interstellar medium.  

While the “complex” molecules I study all have only six to eight atoms, we see even more complex chemistry in small bodies, such as comets, and meteorites. Thus, it is my goal to understand how this complexity evolves to give us things like amino acids or purines and pyrimidines, components of life as we know it, even in extraterrestrial environments. 

By coming to Santander for the International Summer School in Astrobiology, I hope to gain a better understanding of how my field of astrochemistry relates to problems in astrobiology. I am eager to see how these fields inform each other and to learn from both expert researchers and my fellow students how we can approach these problems and even collaborate to have a better understanding of how life emerges. As a graduate student in chemistry who is housed in the planetary sciences building, most of my conversations have been with chemists, astronomers, and geologists, so I am particularly excited about the opportunity to have these conversations intersect with physics and biology as well. Most of all, I am excited to gain better insight into how my interests in the formation of complex molecules on icy dust grains is connected to research about the prebiotic chemistry further along in a planetary system’s evolution. 

After all, we are all made of star dust, and so I hope that we can work to understand the origin of life together. Fortunately, we have about 5 billion years until the Sun enters a red giant phase and consumes the Earth, returning us to star dust once more.