Colombian astrochemist Dr Heidy Mayerly Quitián-Lara is creating synthetic ices to study the formation of molecules that could lead to the origin of life in young planetary systems.
Quitián-Lara, who is currently a visiting researcher at the University of Kent in Canterbury in the United Kingdom says that she recently started to work on a very ambitious experimental astrochemistry project, as part of the Europlanet program under Prof. Nigel Mason.
“The goal of my work is to study astrophysical ice analogues, simulating the environments where complex organic molecules are formed,” she says, adding that astrophysical ice analogues are synthetic ices made from pure or mixed molecular samples to simulate the chemistry that takes place in cold regions of the universe such as molecular clouds.
“There are different hypotheses about how life could have formed on earth,” Quitián-Lara says, “However, there are many studies and debates about it and from my part, I believe that trying to understand the chemical origin of our solar system is a way of tracing our origins as a species.”
Prebiotic molecules like those studied by Quitián-Lara are molecules that participate in the processes of formation of chemical species of biological interest: they can be combined in different ways can form important species for life, which in turn contain the main elements for life such as carbon (C), nitrogen (N), oxygen (O), phosphorus (P), and sulfur (S).
“The ice that will be studied in my project is composed of a mixture of gases such as carbon monoxide (CO), methanol (CH3OH), water (H2O), nitrogen (N2), methane (CH4) and ammonia (NH3) in different proportions, with the aim of forming complex organic species of prebiotic interest from these starting materials,” she says.
From Santander to the Stars
Quitián-Lara was born in the eastern Colombian city of Bucaramanga and grew up in Floridablanca, also in the Colombian department (state) of Santander.
“I have been passionate about natural and exact sciences since my childhood,” she says, “I am particularly grateful to my high school chemistry teacher, Roy Acosta, who not only taught me fascinating aspects about the nature of matter but also provided me with advanced chemistry books to study.”
She initially started studying nursing in her undergraduate degree, but her curiosity for science was greater.
“So, I ended up, initially against my family’s will, switching to Chemistry. During my undergraduate studies, I met the Halley Astronomy group, which introduced me to stellar nucleosynthesis,” she say, “I learned that chemical elements are formed in stars. That was the exact moment that I realized I was going to become an astrochemist.”
Quitián-Lara says that as a Colombian and a Latin American, she believes that being able to be part of international science programs allows the countries of the Global South to join the forefront of knowledge.
“It allows us to create opportunities to reduce that inequality gap that, due to lack of economic resources or simply due to the lack of adequate spaces, we cannot access,” she says, adding that she believes that having more and more scientists from the Global South is the way to provide development, growth, representation, and identification to the new generations.
“We need more scientists from different areas of knowledge so that they inspire more women and men to study and practice as scientists,” Quitián-Lara says.
Another Colombian is looking back even further in time to unlock the mysteries of protoplanetary disks: disks of dust and gas where planets are going to form.
Astronomer María Claudia Ramírez-Tannus will be part of a team using the newly-launched James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to compare the demographics of extrasolar planets (planets orbiting stars other than the Sun) with observations of protoplanetary disks.