Alumnus Brett McGuire explores the chemistry of space

Date

06/11/20

Astrochemist Brett McGuire (BS, ‘09) began exploring space as an undergraduate researcher in the Department of Chemistry at Illinois, an interdisciplinary springboard for his current work.

Now, a Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, McGuire will soon join the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Chemistry as an assistant professor where he will continue his space exploration, combining chemistry and astronomy in search of complex molecules far from Earth.

He said research in the McGuire Group at MIT will use the tools of physical chemistry, molecular spectroscopy, and observational astrophysics to understand how the chemical ingredients for life evolve with and help shape the formation of stars and planets.

Named last year to the Science News list of the Top 10 scientists to watch, McGuire has notable discoveries, including the presence of benzonitrile in a dark cloud in the Milky Way and other very complex molecules in space.

By “figuring out which molecules are out there, (McGuire) and others hope to learn how the organic chemistry that undergirds all life on Earth — and perhaps anywhere else in the universe — gets started in space,” according to Science News.

McGuire got his start in research in 2006 as an Illinois chemistry undergraduate in the group of Professor Benjamin McCall, who’s now an adjunct professor in the department. McGuire studied the reactions of hydrogen molecules and ions relevant to the interstellar medium in McCall's group, which included astronomers and chemists working together to tackle problems from both angles.

McGuire said his undergraduate experience at Illinois was his first exposure to astrochemistry as a discipline, serving as a springboard to launch his career in the field.

“And it also made clear the importance of interdisciplinary work in solving challenging problems,” he said.

After graduating from the U of I, McGuire earned a Master’s degree in physical chemistry from Emory University in 2011 and a PhD in physical chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 2015.

For his PhD work, he constructed a spectrometer to measure the far-infrared (THz) absorption spectra of interstellar ice analogs, which could be the dominant source of complex molecule formation in the interstellar medium.

“But their compositions are largely unknown due to the difficulty of characterizing them using known infrared spectra,” McGuire explained.

In his post-doc work, McGuire transitioned into the microwave millimeter/submillimeter region of the spectrum with high-resolution, gas-phase rotational spectroscopy of reactive or transient species.  During this time, he also began extensive involvement in astronomical observations of these molecules in regions of our galaxy along the path to star- and planet-formation.

And he now leads several international efforts that bring together astronomers, chemists, physicists, and others to explore the evolution of molecular complexity from diffuse interstellar clouds to the formation of planets.

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