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Earth & Atmospheric Sciences
Hi! I am a second-year grad student working with Professor Jonathan Lunine on the decomposition of amino acids in the ocean of icy moons Europa and Enceladus. These moons are two compelling places in the solar system to search for life as liquid oceans have both found under the icy subsurface, powering by tidal dissipation heating and having active hydrothermal activities.
As future missions (e.g, Europa Clipper) will investigate the habitability of the oceans and seek "biosignatures" such as amino acids, it is critical to understand if the detected amino acids were the ones generated from other abiotic processes, not related biology such as 1) Accretion of primordial materials or 2) Geochemical synthesis in the ocean. In the first case, the simplest possibility that one would consider, the amino acids would date back to the formation of the moons and have been acquired via its building blocks planetesimals (such as amino acids preserved in meteorites, comets, etc.). In the latter case, amino acids could be synthesized from smaller molecule precursors such as formaldehyde in the presence of hydrothermal activities as suggested for Europa and Enceladus.
The critical motivation for my current work is to address and answer the first hypothesis if there is any contemporary process to produce amino acids within the ocean if they can be found in future missions or they are the results of primordial synthesis and preserved in solar system building block materials. Amino acids which are sensitive to destruction, unless protected or recently emplaced by another process, must have been recently formed and can be identified based on their relative stabilities. Knowledge of amino acids decomposition process allows construction of a chronology for a given temperature range in the environment, and distinguish those species generated between primordial synthesis and contemporary production in the ocean.
Before coming to Cornell, I got my Bachelor degree in Space Science in Vietnam, from the University of Science and Technology of Hanoi. During my BSc. thesis, I was working with Dr. Pascal Lee at the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute in Mountain View, California on the study of "tektites", the terrestrial melted impact ejecta found in Vietnam and surrounding region called "Australasian strewnfield". A mysterious impact crater with the diameter of approximately at least 20 up to 100km in the region of Vietnam (including the sea of Vietnam), Laos, Cambodia has been hypothesized to explain the presence of tektites. As a Vietnamese, the origin of tektites and the mystery of impact crater are really intriguing and motivate me to continue this work as a side-project, hopefully, we could get funding for fieldwork in the future.
Besides working, I also very enjoy hiking, playing sports (soccer, ping-pong, badminton) as well as hanging out and chatting about all topics as sharing is learning! Please feel free to drop me an email if you are interested in to know more about me!
- Carl Sagan Institute
- Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
Advisor: Professor Jonathan Lunine