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Grant Supports Study of How Life Formed on Earth

By: Kathleen Tuck   Published 1:27 pm / September 16, 2016

Mike Callahan in his lab with Chemistry and Biochemistry students Melissa Roberts and Alison Good.

Students Melissa Roberts and Alison Good with Mike Callahan in his chemistry lab. Patrick Sweeney photo.

As a new college freshman, Mike Callahan wasn’t sure what he ultimately wanted to do. But an opportunity to participate in undergraduate research led to a job in pharmaceuticals and acceptance to graduate school.

Now this assistant professor of chemistry is paying it forward, providing positions for two undergraduate students through a grant from the Idaho Space Grant Consortium.

Of the five ISGC awards this year, three went to Boise State programs. In addition to Callahan, awardees are Steve Swanson, Boise State University Undergraduate Microgravity Research Team, and Brian Jackson, “Dust Devil Survey Using an Instrumented UAV.” Callahan’s project is titled “Investigating Formamide Chemistry under Plausible Prebiotic Conditions.”

“The experience of working in a research lab is irreplaceable. Students are introduced to a real world question that does not have an answer and it’s up to them to arrive at a solution,” Callahan said.  “They usually can’t get that experience in the classroom alone.”

Callahan and his student researchers, Alison Good and Melissa Roberts, will be looking at how life formed on Earth. Specifically, they will study formamide, an organic compound that has been linked to the synthesis of important biologically relevant compounds like amino acids and nucleobases. However, when you put formamide in water (and early Earth likely had plenty of water), it starts to have problems.

Mike Callahan's Chemistry and Biochemistry students Melissa Roberts and Alison Good.

“Our proposed research will investigate the chemistry of aqueous formamide and ways that formamide can be concentrated — like a drying beach or lagoon, or even a puddle,” Callahan said.

Good and Roberts will attempt to answer several questions. Can you take a formamide-water solution and concentrate it, and test what happens next? When a breakdown occurs, how is it facilitated? How do you concentrate formamide so that it sticks around and reacts?

“Prebiotic chemistry is interesting to me because it seeks to answer big questions about how life on Earth began,” said Roberts. “The reactions done in the lab along with research done outside this lab contribute to a much bigger picture and it is an exciting field to be in.”

Good agrees: “It is rewarding to be researching a reaction that is breaking new ground. Plus, prebiotic chemistry on the origins of life is a pretty interesting research topic.”

Both students noted the benefits of undergraduate research— including valuable experience in the lab, presenting at conferences and writing about research — that graduate programs look for.

The goal of the NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium Undergraduate Research Grant Program is to encourage and facilitate hands-on research activities for undergraduate students interested in pursuing a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-related degree.

To learn more about Callahan’s research, check out his research group website at

Watch this clip from a NASA interview prior to the Sept. 8 launch of the OSIRIS-Rex mission to an asteroid. NASA’s chief scientist Ellen Stofan mentions Callahan’s research at 45 seconds and at 1:13 minutes.