Morgan McCabe has joined the Department of Chemistry staff as Lead Research Specialist. She will be working with labs–from design to implementation–across the undergraduate curriculum.
“I am excited to work with the TAs and professors and help ensure their labs are working smoothly. I hope to be a resource for both TAs and professors and make their lives a little easier when conducting the labs,” says Morgan.
Morgan is new to the Department of Chemistry staff, but not to the Department of Chemistry. She gradauted this Spring with an M.S. in chemistry from the Widicus Weaver Group.
“My thesis research was in the areas of astrochemistry and millimeter-wave spectroscopy. I worked in a lab setting to find the rotational spectrum of a few molecules of astrochemical interest including aminomethanol and the methoxy and hydroxymethyl radicals,” says Morgan. For those of us who aren’t astrochemists, Morgan explains the significance of rotational spectrum: “Since a rotational spectrum acts like a fingerprint for a molecule getting lab data of these molecules can help us determine if the molecule is present in chemically active star-forming regions.”
Morgan’s interest in chemistry makes her a perfect fit to drive undergraduate engagement in the lab. Her own college experience in the lab is what led her on a path towards the chemistry degree and graduate school. “I enjoyed chemistry when I was in high school but I became truly passionate about it in my freshman year of college, when I did a research project with Steve Shipman looking at the rotational spectra of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons). I enjoyed the puzzle-like nature of chemistry, especially spectroscopy, and I have been hooked since.”
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chemistry graduate students helped to raise awareness of sickle cell disease with “Sickle & Flow,” a hip hop benefit concert. The concert took place on Saturday, June 18th in Edgewood. Proceeds raised from the concert–which featured Command, Bassmint Fresh, Ariel Simone, and many more–will benefit the Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia.
Working together with the team at SciComm, [Matthew] Lewis [Emory MD/PhD Candidate] and Wieliczko began to reach out to different artists and musicians to discuss the different ways they could leverage Atlanta. The thought was that in order to better connect the scientific and medical communities with the public, they needed to tap into the culture that drives the city forward. “The nightlife, the music, the history of this place is so incredible,” says Lewis. “There are a lot of young people and a high proportion of African-Americans. We got to thinking: what if we could combine that youth culture, that music and arts vibe that is so strong in Atlanta, and try to partner with these organizations together and celebrate the lives of people affected by sickle cell?”
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.