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C&EN talks with Olivia Wilkins, a postdoc at NASA

The astrochemist explains how a chance sighting of a radio telescope led to a career studying molecules in space

by Nina Notman, special to C&EN
July 16, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 23

Olivia Wilkins stood in front of a research poster.
Credit: Courtesy of Olivia Wilkins
Olivia Wilkins presented her postdoc research on the SubLIME project at ACS Fall 2022.

Olivia Wilkins is a space explorer who likes to keep her feet firmly on the ground. She is an astrochemistry postdoc at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where she is working to better understand the fundamental chemistry taking place on icy celestial objects, such as comets. To do this, she carries out lab experiments and compares results with data collected by radio telescopes such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

Nina Notman talks to Wilkins about her research, her dreams for the future, her passion for outreach, and her ACS service. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

What is astrochemistry, and why is it important that we study it?

Astrochemistry is the study of molecules in space. We look at what molecules are out there, how they form, and how they interact with one another. Studying interstellar space lets us look at the most fundamental chemical reactions in the universe, the chemistry that precedes life as we know it, and the chemistry that makes up our planet.


Hometown: New Oxford, Pennsylvania

Current residence: Annapolis, Maryland

Current position: NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Education: BS, chemistry and mathematics, Dickinson College, 2015; PhD, chemistry, California Institute of Technology, 2021

Favorite telescope: Green Bank Telescope, West Virginia

When did you first become interested in radio telescopes?

When I was 7, my family and I were on vacation in West Virginia, and I saw what looked like a giant satellite dish—which I later learned was the Green Bank Telescope—rising up above the trees in the mountains. The telescope is really cool: it’s the largest movable object on land, it weighs 17 million pounds, you could fit two American football fields on the dish, and it’s taller than the Statue of Liberty. The whole premise of radio astronomy is really cool too: you are exploring the invisible universe. I went on to do a summer research experience at the Green Bank Telescope while I was earning my undergraduate chemistry degree. This was when I first heard of the field of astrochemistry, during a talk from a visiting researcher. I was so excited because I learned that I could combine my background in chemistry with my passion for large radio telescopes into a career. This was what ultimately led me to pursue astrochemistry for my PhD.

Studying interstellar space lets us look at the most fundamental chemical reactions in the universe, the chemistry that precedes life as we know it, and the chemistry that makes up our planet.

Can you tell me about your postdoc research?

My research group at Goddard runs SubLIME, the Sublimation of Laboratory Ices Millimeter/submillimeter Experiment. The chemistry in space that we observe using radio telescopes is in the gas phase, but a lot of it is thought to have originated in cosmic ices. Our experiments complement these observations by looking at what is happening in the ice phase and connecting it directly to what is seen in the gas phase.

We make analogues of icy materials found in space, such as icy dust grains and comets, in the lab. Then, we irradiate them with ultraviolet light to simulate the starlight from an infant star as it’s growing or the sun as a comet passes by on its orbit through the solar system. Next, we sublimate the ice and trap the resulting gas. We then use submillimeter spectroscopy, which is the same technique that radio telescopes use, to detect what gas-phase products are there. SubLIME is the first cosmic ice experiment to do this.

So far, about 300 molecules have been detected in interstellar and circumstellar space, but a lot of the chemical reaction networks for these molecules are unknown or are debated. Our experiment helps us understand the chemistry connecting cosmic ices, interstellar and solar radiation, and gas-phase molecules, which in turn can inform astrochemical models or contextualize telescope observations.

Your postdoc ends in January—what are your plans for the future?

Ultimately, I want to be an independent researcher. I’m currently hoping to stay at NASA for at least a little bit longer and am working on securing funding to do that.

I know that you do a lot of outreach. Can you share what you like to do and why?

One of the perks of being a NASA postdoc is that I get NASA stickers and other swag to give out at events. I do disappoint a lot of kids though, because they think that because I’m from NASA, I must be an astronaut! I tell them, “I’m too scared to go to space. Even if I could go, I probably wouldn’t.”

I like going to career days, either virtually or in person, to talk to elementary school students about astrochemistry. I also like to visit and give seminars at primarily undergraduate institutions because I know—having gone through a chemistry program at a small liberal arts college—that astrochemistry is not something those students are likely learning about. Besides presenting at schools, I enjoy speaking at local libraries and observatories; the audiences at these events are mostly adults, but they are usually just as excited as kids to learn about space.

A group of smiling people stood by a lake.
Credit: Courtesy of Olivia Wilkins
Olivia Wilkins (far right) and some of the 2022 CAS Future Leaders cohort.

You’re co-organizing an astrochemistry symposium at ACS Fall 2023. What are some details on that?

We are celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the Astrochemistry Subdivision of the Division of Physical Chemistry. We are holding a series of talks describing exciting research over the last decade, as well as panel discussions with an emphasis on the future of the field. The symposium is called “The Astrochemistry Subdivision: A Decade of Progress and Prospects for the Next Decade” and takes place on Sunday, Aug. 13 through Wednesday, Aug. 16. The sessions will cover experimental, theoretical, and observational work—the three main branches of astrochemistry research. It also happens to be 10 years since I first heard the word “astrochemistry” at Green Bank, so being able to co-organize this symposium is extra special to me.

What about your work with the Younger Chemists Committee?

I joined the National Younger Chemists Committee (YCC) in January as an affiliate because I wanted to meet other chemists at my career stage who work in different fields from me. We talk about the challenges that younger chemists are facing and share ideas for how to improve the chemistry community as a whole. I’m currently working on Meet the YCC posts for the YCC website that profiles a different committee member each month. It’s important that other younger chemists know the people advocating for them within ACS and that people are recognized for the hard work that they put into these committees as volunteers.

What hats do you wear as an active member of the Maryland Section?

I am a member-at-large for the Maryland Section, and I have also been the chair of its Local Section Younger Chemists Committee (LSYCC) since April. Our LSYCC is being reinstated after being inactive for at least 10 years. I am planning for networking events, hopefully in partnership with LSYCCs from nearby local sections, and will be setting up an LSYCC award for the Maryland Section. I have other ideas for that committee, but nothing else is definite yet.

You were in the 2022 class of CAS Future Leaders. How did you find that experience?

I can’t believe how much I enjoyed it. I recommend that everyone apply for it. The workshops that we attended were really insightful. They provided important skills that you typically don’t learn about in graduate school, such as science communication, coaching, and mentoring. I met people who I never would have met otherwise, and now I have a cohort of people from across disciplines who I can meet up with at future ACS meetings. But honestly, the best part of that program was that it gave me a lot of confidence. The organizers constantly told us how great they thought we all were and that we were amazing, and by the end of the week, I believed them.

Nina Notman is a freelance writer based in Salisbury, England.


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