Chemistry, Physics Professors Land NASA Grant to Support Pilot Study

Albion College science professors Vanessa McCaffrey and Nicolle Zellner have received another grant in support of their pilot study of shock chemistry, which examines how organic molecules change in impact events. McCaffrey, an associate professor of chemistry, and Zellner, an associate professor of physics, have received $121,000 from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Astrobiology Institute.

The grant, which is in addition to a $7,000 award from the American Astronomical Society received last summer, continues their research into understanding how organic molecules that have been identified in comets, meteorites, and the interstellar medium can survive impact events. The duo then seek to apply that information toward understanding the origin of life on Earth.

Zellner stated that receipt of the latest grant will allow her to work with a colleague at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“The Earth and Moon have been hit continuously by comets and asteroids over the past 4.5 billion years, and we’re studying how organic molecules that are contained in these objects change in these kinds of impact events,” Zellner said. “Despite the high pressure and temperature found during impact it has been shown that molecules can survive and even change. We are studying specific compounds and watching if they become more complex, if they break down, if new molecules form, or if nothing happens at all.”

NASA’s Astrobiology Institute praised the Albion faculty members for their original research.

“In making selections this year we placed a priority on new, innovative work that went beyond the originally proposed research of the NAI teams,” stated the letter to Zellner and McCaffrey that announced the grant. “Your proposal defined such work, and we wish you and your team the best of success with this project and your future research in astrobiology.”

Update, Feb. 15: Professors Zellner and McCaffrey will be conducting their research at NASA Ames in Mountain View, Calif., during the week of Feb. 21.