Dr. Widicus Weaver: Outer Space and Outreach

Scientific outreach events give us the opportunity to disseminate our ideas, share our scientific discoveries, present collaboration opportunities, or even inspire the next generation of scientists. On Wednesday, November 8th, Dr. Widicus Weaver shared her passion for astrochemistry, biology, and space with a room full of enthusiastic second graders at Westchester Elementary School. She discussed topics ranging from star formation to molecules in space, drawing from her research on pre-biotic astrochemistry. The children even had the chance to look through hand-held spectroscopes!

Outreach events like this one allow scientists the unique chance to bring awareness to the scientific endeavors taking place here at Emory and provides those in the community the chance to learn a new topic from a true expert. The children who attended Dr. Widicus Weaver’s seminar got an exclusive look into the amazing science happening far beyond our planet.  Some photos from the event are shown below.

Applying to Graduate School 101: A Letter from the Director of Graduate Studies

Director of Graduate Studies Susanna Widicus Weaver gives a research seminar to new graduate students in August 2017.
Director of Graduate Studies Susanna Widicus Weaver gives a research seminar to new graduate students in August 2017.

This Fall, we are publishing a special series of blog posts about applying to graduate school–at Emory and in general. Our goal is to demystify the application process and help applicants feel confident as they seek a home for their graduate studies. This post is the first in the series, a letter from our Director of Graduate Studies, Dr. Susanna Widicus Weaver.

orange line

Susanna Widicus Weaver. Photo by Jessica Lily Photography.
Susanna Widicus Weaver. Photo by Jessica Lily Photography for Work+Play.

Dear Applicants to the Emory Chemistry Graduate Program,

As Director of Graduate Studies, I want to welcome you as you begin a truly fantastic journey on the path to becoming a scientist. Applying to graduate school is an important step in your journey, and I hope that our Emory Chemistry community can help guide you along this career path. This is a special year for me to lead our admissions team as I recently started my own journey by taking on the role of Director of Graduate Studies. I look forward to getting to know each of you via your applications and am committed to building a great graduate class for entry in Fall 2018.

It is an exciting time in our Department as many changes are taking place. In 2015, we moved in to a new, beautiful addition to Atwood Hall, giving us room to grow our research capabilities and expand our teaching endeavors. This new space inspired the reform of our teaching mission, and we are implementing “Chemistry Unbound” this fall. This full revision and rebranding of our undergraduate chemistry curriculum opens up new opportunities for graduate students to become involved in our teaching mission. Additionally, we are aggressively hiring faculty members who, through both research and teaching, offer innovative pathways into a deeper understanding of Chemistry. Lastly, we always strive to disseminate our science through an active outreach program that seeks to inspire and engage our community.

The Graduate program is at the heart of our Department, and our success in these endeavors depends on its students. Graduate students participate in our teaching mission by serving as undergraduate teaching assistants, aid in outreach activities to engage the community in our work, and contribute to the research endeavor via their own independent research. To join our Department as a graduate student is to fully immerse yourself in the world of Chemistry.

Emory Chemistry has a wonderful team in place to help you on your journey.

  • If you have questions about the application process or our outreach activities, please contact Kira Walsh, our Outreach Coordinator.
  • If you have questions about our graduate program, please email gradchem [at] emory [dot] edu; this will connect you with our entire admissions team, including Graduate Coordinator Ana Maria Velez, Kira Walsh, and our faculty Graduate Committee.
  • If you have questions about research, please contact any research-active faculty member in this Department. (At this link, you can also see a list of faculty accepting students in Fall 2018.)
  • If you have questions about our teaching mission, please contact Dr. Douglas Mulford, Director of Undergraduate Studies.
  • And if you have general questions about our Department or our Graduate Program, please contact me or Dr. Stefan Lutz, our Department Chair.

I wish you all the best as you begin your Chemistry journey.


Dr. Widicus Weaver

Director of Graduate Studies

orange line

Ready to apply? Visit chemistry.emory.edu/apply! Applications received before October 31st will receive an automatic waiver of the application fee (scores and letters may arrive later.) The final deadline is January 1st.

Chemistry Kicks Off Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiative with STRIDE Seminar

Ted Bergin

On Wednesday, September 27th, the Emory University Department of Chemistry was pleased to welcome Dr. Edwin (Ted) Bergin, Professor and Chair of Astronomy at the University of Michigan, to speak about “Strategies and Tactics Developed at the University of Michigan to Enhance Diversity and Excellence in the Hiring Process.”

Dr. Bergin has spent three years as a member of the University of Michigan’s STRIDE (Strategies and Tactics for Recruiting to Improve Diversity and Excellence) committee. STRIDE formed over a decade ago to provide information and advice for identifying, recruiting, retaining, and promoting diverse, well-qualified candidates for faculty positions at the University of Michigan. Since then, the committee has delivered more than 150 workshops to faculty recruitment committees at other Universities across the country.

“The committee has the mission to try to increase both diversity and excellence throughout the University, and the main vehicle is through the hiring process,” Dr. Bergin said. “Having a more diverse faculty can lead to more thoughtful and deliberative discussions. So, diversity and excellence go hand-in-hand.” During the STRIDE workshop seminar, Dr. Bergin provided attendees with insights into how hidden biases influence our perceptions and strategies to circumvent these biases. He outlined the “Top Ten Best Practices”, a comprehensive list of steps to take during the hiring process to recruit for diversity and excellence.

Emory as an institution strives to cultivate an inclusive and diverse community with a respectful intellectual stage for sharing ideas and innovation. Based on the Emory University 2016-2017 Academic Profile, minorities comprise 32 percent of the student body, 28 percent of faculty and 49 percent of staff, women comprise 58 percent of the student body, 42 percent of faculty and 62 percent of staff, and 17 percent of the student body is international.

Earlier this year, The Emory Department of Chemistry formed a task force, led by Dr. James Kindt, to address issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. One of its members, Dr. Susanna Widicus Weaver, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, invited Dr. Bergin for this seminar after learning that he was instrumental in achieving gender balance at an astrochemistry conference they both attended.  “Our Emory Chemistry task force took a look at the goals of the STRIDE group and decided that Professor Bergin would be a fantastic speaker to bring in to kick off our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative,” Dr. Widicus Weaver said. “Increasing diversity in our community means that we introduce new ideas, new ways of thought, and new perspectives. Diversity, equity, and inclusion makes us stronger as a Department and enriches our community.”

Moving forward, the Department of Chemistry Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion task force plan to have more events like this one to provide training and strategies to better address the possible bias-based obstacles to achieving a diverse and inclusive community. By raising awareness and starting conversations centered around these concepts, The Emory Department of Chemistry can take pride in not only seeking diversity, but truly taking the steps to achieve it.


Congratulations, Dr. Wallace Derricotte!

Wallace Derricotte with Francesco Evangelista following his defense.
Wallace Derricotte with Francesco Evangelista following his defense.

Wallace Derricotte successfully defended his dissertation, “Development and Applications of Orthogonality Constrained Density Functional Theory for the Accurate Simulation of X-Ray Absorption Spectroscopy,” on Wednesday, June 28th, 2017. His committee was led by Dr. Francesco Evangelista with Dr. Joel Bowman and Dr. Susanna Widicus Weaver as additional members.

During his time at Emory, Wallace was an Emerson Fellowship recipient as well as a 2014 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Recipient. Up next, Wallace will join the chemistry faculty at Morehouse College as a Tenure-Track Assistant Professor.

Congratulations, Wallace!


Congratulations, Dr. Michael Sullivan!

Michael Neal Sullivan successfully defended his dissertation, “Electronic Spectroscopy of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) and Group IIA Metallic Oxides ” on Monday, April 10th, 2017. Michael’s committee was led by Michael C. Heaven with Tim Lian and Susanna Widicus Weaver as additional members.

During his time at Emory, Michael received the 2012 Outstanding TA Award for his work in physical chemistry lab. He also completed two internships (summer 2013 and 2014) at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in Albuquerque, NM. 

Next up, Michael will start a postdoctoral position with Dr. Lei Zhu at the New York Dept. of Health, Wadsworth Center in Albany, NY at the end of June.

Congratulations, Michael!

Congratulations, Dr. Luyao Zou!

Luyao Zou
Luyao Zou

Luyao Zou successfully defended his thesis, “Astrochemistry in star-forming regions: laboratory millimeter-submillimeter spectroscopy and broadband astronomical line surveys” on Thursday, March 9th, 2017. Luyao’s thesis committed was led by Susanna Widicus Weaver with Michael C. Heaven and Joel Bowman as additional members. Luyao will be returning to China to take a position as operation coordinator in science communication. Congratulations, Luyao!


PhD Candidate Luyao Zou Develops LaTeX Template for Dissertations

Congratulations, Graduate Student Award Winners!

First Person: PDS Training at the World’s Largest Radio Telescope

Susanna Widicus Weaver Named to Editorial Board of the Journal of Physical Chemistry

Susanna Widicus Weaver. Photo by Jessica Lily Photography.
Susanna Widicus Weaver. Photo by Jessica Lily Photography.

Susanna Widicus Weaver has been named to the Editorial Board of the Journal of Physical Chemistry for 2017 to 2019. The journal celebrated its centennial in 1996 and encompasses  the field of physical chemistry in four related journals. Dr. Widicus Weaver’s research is most closely aligned with The Journal of Physical Chemistry A (Isolated Molecules, Clusters, Radicals, and Ions; Environmental Chemistry, Geochemistry, and Astrochemistry; Theory) which publishes studies on kinetics and dynamics; spectroscopy, photochemistry, and excited states; environmental and atmospheric chemistry, aerosol processes, geochemistry, and astrochemistry; and molecular structure, quantum chemistry, and general theory. Congratulations, Susanna!

Congratulations, Dr. Joshua Bartlett!

Josh Bartlett (center, in red) pictured with members of the Heaven Group after a successful defense.
Josh Bartlett (center, in red) pictured with members of the Heaven Group after a successful defense.

Joshua Bartlett successfully defended his thesis, “Electronic and Photoionization Spectroscopy of Heavy Metal-Containing Diatomic Molecules” on Tuesday, September 27th, 2016. Drew’s thesis committed was led by Michael C. Heaven with James T. Kindt and Susanna Widicus Weaver as additional members. Joshua will begin a postdoctoral appointment at Los Alamos National Lab in October. Congratulations, Joshua!

Widicus Weaver Group Contributes to Ground-Breaking Result on the Chemistry of Planet-forming Discs

This artist’s impression shows the closest known protoplanetary disc, around the star TW Hydrae in the huge constellation of Hydra (The Female Watersnake). The organic molecule methyl alcohol (methanol) has been found by the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) in this disc. This is the first such detection of the compound in a young planet-forming disc. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
This artist’s impression shows the closest known protoplanetary disc, around the star TW Hydrae in the huge constellation of Hydra (The Female Watersnake). The organic molecule methyl alcohol (methanol) has been found by the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) in this disc. This is the first such detection of the compound in a young planet-forming disc.
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The Widicus Weaver Group contributed to recently released research that confirms the presence of the organic molecule methyl alcohol (methanol) in the protoplanetary disc surrounding the young star TW Hydrae. This is the first such detection of the compound in a young planet-forming disc.

“Methanol is the starting point for all complex organic chemistry in space,” explains Susanna Widicus Weaver. The detection of methanol surrounding TW Hyrdrae, the closest-known protoplanetary disc to Earth, helps astronomers understand the chemical processes that occur during the formation of planetary systems and that ultimately lead to the creation of the ingredients for life.

The finding comes via the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA), the most powerful observatory in existence for mapping the chemical composition and the distribution of cold gas in nearby discs. Catherine Walsh, lead author of the study, explains: “Finding methanol in a protoplanetary disc shows the unique capability of ALMA to probe the complex organic ice reservoir in discs and so, for the first time, allows us to look back in time to the origin of chemical complexity in a planet nursery around a young Sun-like star.”

Walsh’s observations relied in part on a chemical network developed by Widicus Weaver and collaborators Eric Herbst and Rob Gerrod at the University of Virginia. “We had originally applied this network to star-forming regions, but not to discs,” explained Widicus Weaver. Their unique chemical perspective on organic molecule formation in star and planet-forming regions helped the study’s lead author, Dr. Catherine Walsh, to develop the observing proposal that allowed her to obtain time using ALMA.

“This is a truly exceptional, ground-breaking result,” says Widicus Weaver. “We have long suspected that the ingredients for more complex organic chemistry like we see on Earth comes from the material in a planet-forming disc around a new star. The result gives us direct evidence that this is indeed the case [ . . . ] The field of astrochemistry has waited a long time for this result to be possible. It is an exciting time to be an astrochemist!”

[Full Press Release]

Further Reading

Garrod R. T., Widicus Weaver S. L., & Herbst E. “Chemistry during the warm-up phase of a hot core: A new grain/gas chemical model.”  Astrophys. J., 682, 283-304, 2008.

Laas J. C., Garrod R. T., Herbst E., & Widicus Weaver S. L., “Contributions from grain surface and gas phase chemistry to the formation of methyl formate and its structural isomers.” Astrophys. J., 728 71 (9pp), 2011.

Walsh, C., Herbst E., Nomura H., Millar T. J., and Widicus Weaver S. L., “Complex organic molecules along the accretion flow in isolated and externally irradiated protoplanetary disks.” Faraday Discuss., 168, 2014.

Walsh, C., Millar T. J., Nomura H., Herbst E., Widicus Weaver S. L., Aikawa Y., Laas J. C., and Vasyunin A. I. “Complex organic molecules in protoplanetary disks.” Astron. & Astrophys., 563, A33, 2013.



First Person: PDS Training at the World’s Largest Radio Telescope

By: Luyao Zou (Widicus Weaver Group)

The opportunity to use a radio telescope–a gigantic steel instrument that receives messages from deep space–is one of the many reasons I chose to step into the interdisciplinary field of astrochemistry. When I joined the Widicus Weaver group at Emory, I got a chance to go to the Single Dish Summer School in Puerto Rico at the Arecibo Observatory. The summer school was hosted by the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). Professional Development Support (PDS) funds from Emory’s Laney Graduate School made this trip possible.

Click here to view a group photo of summer school participants on the NAIC website. Luyao Zou is pictured center front in a blue Emory t-shirt.

Arecibo is by far the largest single dish radio telescope in the world, excluding the 1640 foot FAST in China that is still under construction. It sits inside a karst sinkhole on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. Its 1000 foot dish collects a dramatic amount of radio waves. The radiation feeds into a movable dome in which a secondary dish further focuses the radiation into radio receivers. Arecibo is both a passive radio wave collector and an active radio radar. The radio waves come from various sources in deep space, such as galaxies, pulsars, and molecular clouds, and from the echoes of radar signal from the planets and asteroids in our solar system.

Group Discussion. Photo by Luyao Zou.
Group Discussion. Photo by Luyao Zou.

In the week-long camp, I was immersed in a series of intense courses talking about every aspect of radio astronomy from the fundamental theory to engineering to observation procedures to data analysis. While trying to understand so much science in such a short period of time was stressful, it was also a lot of fun to work, discuss and learn together with about a hundred fellows from around the world. We had plenty of time free for discussion after each day’s workshop. People liked to gather around the pool in the observatory, enjoy food and drink, and talk about science, as well as share fun stories with each other.

Team work. Photo by Luyao Zou.
Team work. Photo by Luyao Zou.

Two experiences provided during the summer school stand out. One was a hands-on observing project using either Arecibo or the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) to practice what we learned from the workshop. GBT is a NRAO facility that has a telescope that is smaller in size than Arecibo but operates at higher radio frequencies. Unfortunately, on the day I was assigned to the hands-on project, Arecibo encountered a little mechanical problem that suspended its operation . But I was able to sit in front of a computer terminal with my teammates, remotely operating GBT 1600 miles away in West Virginia. We sent off commands to point the telescope at the desired area in the sky, controlled the telescope to track the sources, and integrated signals emitted from hydrogen nuclei dropping from a higher energy state onto a lower energy state. We observed a few galaxies and were able to estimate their size and mass from the spectral line of hydrogen nuclei we collected.

The other fascinating activity was a platform tour on to the arms and dome of Arecibo. It was so scary to look down from an arm hanging in the air 300 feet above the main dish! When the tour approached the dome where the radio wave reflected from the main dish is further focused and sent into the receivers, I could see the giant antenna feed and horns closer than I could have imagined before.

Tour on to the Arecibo platform. The dome is at the end of this arm. Photo by Luyao Zou.
Tour on to the Arecibo platform. The dome is at the end of this arm. Photo by Luyao Zou.

Tropic thunderstorms were unpredictable on site. The rain fell before it went dark, and then the water vaporized back into the air. The atmosphere was humid after the rain, and fog rose and started to accumulate in the dish after midnight. From the control room, the dish appeared like a giant pot stewing porridge. The fog persisted in the rain forest until the finger of the sun broke the dawn.

Arecibo in the dawn mist. Photo by Luyao Zou.
Arecibo in the dawn mist. Photo by Luyao Zou.

I had been thinking about taking a photo of the telescope with the starry night as the background. But the rains and fogs every day had stopped me from doing that. Fortunately, I got my chance to take the photo I wanted during the last night of the workshop. That night we had a nice farewell banquet under the beautiful sunset and twilight. Then the sky cleared out; no clouds and no moon before midnight. I went down to the bottom of the Arecibo dish with my camera and tripod, found a spot that had an open view of the sky, and started taking photos one after another until a few hours later when I ran out my battery. By that time, the moon had risen up to the top of the sky, and clouds had accumulated. I had fully used my photography time window, and what I obtained was one astounding picture from a synthesis of about 100 single shot pictures of the telescope.

Star trail at Arecibo. Photo by Luyao Zou.
Star trail at Arecibo. Photo by Luyao Zou.

After the summer school, I took the opportunity to stay in Puerto Rico for a few days. In Old San Juan, I walked by local townhouses painted in rainbow colors through alleys covered by cobblestones. In Fajardo, I was able to kayak through a/the mangrove forest into the renowned fluorescent bio-bay, where the magic microbes in the sea water fluoresced around my kayak and paddle.

All these extraordinary experiences could not have happened without the financial support of PDS training funds. The PDS program at the Laney Graduate School at Emory provides students with the resources to embrace the excitement of travel, learning, and academic research through experiences like mine.

Disclaimer: My personal travel costs in Puerto Rico after the Single Dish Summer School were not  covered by PDS.