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Grad Student’s NASA Fellowship to Aid Meteorite Research

By: Kathleen Tuck   Published 10:54 am / June 10, 2016

Phillip Hammer portrait in the lab.

Phillip Hammer, a master’s student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, has been selected for a prestigious NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship (NESSF).

These fellowships support the continued training of a highly qualified workforce in disciplines needed to achieve NASA’s scientific goals. Financial support for the NESSF program comes from the Science Mission Directorate’s four science divisions: earth science, heliophysics, astrophysics and planetary science.

The nationally competitive one-year fellowship includes a $30,000 award and may be renewed up to two additional years, based on performance. Only 28 proposals in the planetary science research category were selected for fellowships, out of 180 applications.

Close shot of Phillip Hammer's hand holding a sample in the lab.

The award is in the form of a training grant, with faculty adviser Mike Callahan, assistant professor of analytical chemistry, as principal investigator. One of Callahan’s research interests includes understanding the chemical composition of meteorites and whether organic compounds inside played a role in the origin of life when meteorites bombarded a young Earth over 4 billion years ago.

Hammer’s project deals with understanding the physical and chemical processes involved in the early solar system. He will study the survivability and stability of nucleobases, biological compounds linked to DNA and RNA.

His research proposal, titled “Some Like It Hot: A Study of Thermally Altered Meteorites and Laboratory Analogs,” investigates the effect of thermal alteration on nucleobases, and also includes the analysis of meteorites.

Meteorites, once a part of an asteroid parent body, are primitive materials dating back to the formation of the solar system approximately 4.56 billion years ago. As a result, these are pristine samples for studying chemical processes that occurred in the early solar system. Hammer will study bits of meteorites in the lab, looking for nucleobases that are both common and rare (or absent) on Earth. What he finds could inform our view of the evolution of planetary systems and help guide our search for life elsewhere.

Hammer considered the fellowship a longshot, but applied at the prompting of Callahan. After spending numerous hours writing and rewriting his proposal, he was surprised and thrilled to be selected. One of his goals is to present his research at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas, next year and he hopes to write two journal papers resulting from his research.

This award is just the latest step for Hammer. “Being selected for the NESSF is an incredible honor. I’ve been fascinated by space-based research since I was a kid,” he said. “Working for NASA would be my dream.”