Graduate Student Spotlight: Brian Hays (Widicus Weaver Group) Wins ACS Astrochemistry Dissertation Award

Brian Hays. Photo provided by Brian Hays.
Brian Hays. Photo provided by Brian Hays.

Brian Hays (Widicus Weaver Group) is honest when asked what it was like to write his dissertation. “The dissertation writing process was grueling,” he says. “I rewrote it several times and stayed up all night for many nights.” Developing the dissertation project was also a challenge. “There were a lot of challenges to getting the PhD, many of them experimental. Usually they involved something that had never been experienced before in the lab, and we would have to learn a new skill and apply it immediately to research.”

That hard work paid off. Brian successfully defended his thesis in April 2015 and in May 2016 he was announced as the winner of the American Chemical Society’s Astrochemistry Dissertation Award for 2016. The award is intended to promote the emerging discipline of Astrochemistry within the PHYS Division of the ACS by recognizing an outstanding recent Ph.D. thesis submitted by an Astrochemistry Subdivision member. Brian will receive a $500 award and will give an invited presentation at the August 2016 ACS Meeting in Philadelphia.

Speaking to Brian, it’s clear that hard work and challenges on the road to the dissertation were met with a spirit of discovery and determination. “It was always very exciting to dive into something new [ . . . ] I was looking forward to building an experiment from scratch.” “Something new” for Brian included the development of novel spectroscopic methods that increased scanning speed by almost 100 times, leading to faster results.  Mentoring support from advisor Susanna Widicus Weaver also made the journey towards the PhD easier. “Susanna was the person at Emory who most helped me towards getting the PhD,” says Brian. “Her mentoring and support is very important to me.”

Photo shows fluorescence from an excimer laser intersecting with molecular source inside a vacuum chamber with infrared beam path coming underneath in the Widicus Weaver Lab. Photo provided by Brian Hays.
Photo shows fluorescence from an excimer laser intersecting with molecular source inside a vacuum chamber with infrared beam path coming underneath in the Widicus Weaver Lab. Photo provided by Brian Hays.

The award-winning research that resulted is “primarily concerned with making and examining unstable molecules that may lead to prebiotic molecules in space.” The research relies on spectroscopic techniques that allow scientists to compare the results of an experiment to astronomical observations of star forming regions. “[We] see if we can make a molecule in the lab and detect it in space,” explains Brian. These techniques allow scientists to make informed observations about far-away regions of space from within the confines of the lab. For Brian, that didn’t completely rule out travel to places far, far away. He took advantage of Professional Development Support funds from the Laney Graduate School to perform astronomical observations in Hawaii.

Currently, Brian is a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue in the lab of Tim Zwier working on chirped pulse microwave spectroscopy. As in the PhD, Brian is seeking new capacities for existing tools “building up [Zwier’s] current instrument towards including mass spectrometry and towards new double resonance techniques.” Their next project will look at processes related to Titan’s atmosphere using these new techniques.

A theme of Brian’s dissertation and postdoctoral work seems to be the excitement he finds in new experiences, techniques, and questions. What does he find most exciting about what’s new and next for the field of astrochemistry? “I am most excited about the proliferation of rotational spectroscopy to more experiments in physical chemistry. This allows for a very high resolution picture of molecules that is state dependent and can be applied in a wide variety of experiments now, including those of astrophysical interest.”







Congratulations, Dr. Xiaohong Wang!

Xiaohong Wang. Photo provided by Xiaohong Wang.
Xiaohong Wang. Photo provided by Xiaohong Wang.

Xiaohong Wang successfully defended her thesis, “Reaction Dynamics and Vibrational Studies of Atmospheric Species on Potential Energy Surfaces” on Thursday, March 10th, 2016. Xiaohong’s thesis committee was led by Joel Bowman with Francesco EvangelistaJames Kindt, and Susanna Widicus Weaver as additional members. Xiaohong is also an author of a recently-published Nature Chemistry paper based on research conducted during her time at Emory.

Congratulations, Xiaohong!

Congratulations, Dr. Kyle Mascaritolo!

Kyle Mascaritolo. Photo provided by Kyle Mascaritolo.
Kyle Mascaritolo. Photo provided by Kyle Mascaritolo.

Kyle Mascaritolo successfully defended his thesis, “A Journal Towards the Construction and Operation of a Photoelectron Velocity-Map Imaging Spectrometer” on Thursday, March 23rd, 2016. Kyle’s thesis committed was led by Michael Heaven with James Kindt and Susanna Widicus Weaver as additional members. After graduation, Kyle plans to pursue a postdoctoral position in gas phase molecular spectroscopy.

Congratulations, Kyle!

Susanna Widicus Weaver Receives Flygare Award

My thesis work centered around rebuilding Flygare’s original FT Microwave instrument, which arrived at Caltech on the same day that I arrived. He’s one of my scientific heroes. This is quite an honor.

Susanna Widicus Weaver has received the Flygare Award from the International Symposium on Molecular Spectroscopy. This prestigious award recognizes outstanding contributions in molecular spectroscopy by early career independent scientists. Dr. Widicus Weaver will give a Flygare Award Lecture at the 70th annual meeting of the ISMS, taking place June 22-26th, 2015 at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

Stars’ Chemistry Key to Their Planets’ Ability to Support Life

Born in a disc of gas and rubble, planets eventually come together as larger and larger pieces of dust and rock stick together. They may be hundreds of light-years away from us, but astronomers can nevertheless watch these planets as they form.

A recent article on (republished from Astrobiology Magazine) highlights a collaborative project detailed in the recent article “Complex organic molecules in protoplanetary disks.” Susanna Widicus Weaver and graduate student Jake Laas in the Widicus Weaver group are co-authors of the paper.

Be sure to check out the full text and the paper!

Chemistry and the Atlanta Science Festival

Undergraduate Chris Hernandez. Photo by Emory Photo/Video.
Undergraduate Chris Hernandez. Photo by Emory Photo/Video.

ChEmory, Emory’s undergraduate ACS club, presented demos at the 2014 Atlanta Science Festival. The demos were the featured entertainment during intermission of the “Science at Emory: The Lab Changing the World” even. At the same event, Susanna Widicus Weaver gave a public talk titled “Chemical Complexity in the Universe” to an audience of over 200. Over 40 audience members visited the department for lab tours following the event. Thanks to event organizers Ilya Nemenman (Physics), David Lynn, Simon Blakey, and graduate student Darcie Cook.

ChEmory demos were again featured at the Exploration Expo held downtown at the Georgia World Congress Center on the last day of the festival. Chemistry undergraduate Chris Hernandez was featured in an Emory Report article about the demos. Jeremy Weaver was featured in a WSB-TV video advertising the festival.

Emory Department of Chemistry graduate student Brandon Greene organized the popular “Science of Beer” event during the Atlanta Science Festival. The event sold out within a day of tickets being made available online, although Pi Alpha Chemical Society made additional tickets available to our graduate students at no charge. The event featured talks about the chemistry of beer and yeast by speakers including Prof. Emily WeinertMonday Night Brewing Company provided three special beers for attendees that helped to illustrate the concepts described in the talks.