From IWU Magazine, Fall 2012 edition

Simulating outer space


When Justyna Koscielniak ’14 looks up at the night sky, she’s not scanning for the prominent North Star or the hazy Milky Way. Instead, she’s wondering about the potential origin of molecules and whether it’s possible to duplicate them, creating the atmosphere humans would need to live on other planets.

Koscielniak looks over one of the chambers used to conduct gas-phase chemical reactions.

Koscielniak spent her summer designing instruments that will help answer those questions.

She explained the project’s goal in her application to become an Eckley scholar. “The study of chemical reactions and dynamics of space molecules in the lab is a daunting task because the environments that these reactions take place in are not typical laboratory conditions,” she wrote.

“I’ve never really done anything like this,” says Koscielniak, who began her project by learning the mechanics of hooking up diffusion pumps and water chillers to a complex vacuum chamber. When the chamber is finished, it will function at extremely low temperatures and pressure, allowing chemical reactions to occur under simulated space conditions.

When Koscielniak needed a second device to measure molecular ions created within the vacuum, she taught herself computer-aided design so she could create this device. “I didn’t even know how to draw a circle,” she says. “I had to learn the program so I could make sure it’d make sense to the machinist.” An engineer at the University of Illinois built the device, called a Faraday cup, based on Koscielniak’s specifications.

Manori Perera, assistant professor of chemistry, believes the intensity of the project boosted her student’s confidence. “It’s always hard to set up a lab for the first time, and she dealt with every little obstacle gracefully,” says Perera, whose research interests are in gas-phase spectroscopy, especially astronomically-related molecular ions. “I can always say for years to come that she helped me build the first stage of my instruments.”

During the summer, Koscielniak was in the lab far more than the required 40 hours a week. “Professor Perera was right next door. You can’t get this kind of immersion during the school year when you have four other classes to study for.”

Her Eckley scholarship meant Koscielniak could work on a project far more challenging than her usual summer retail job, she says. When she graduates next year, Koscielniak plans to move into an accelerated nursing program to get a second bachelor’s degree “and then go on to graduate school to become a nurse-anesthetist.” She believes her summer research experience will definitely help.

“Having this chemistry experience will allow me to feel more comfortable using instruments I might not be familiar with because I will have a better understanding of the mechanics and electronics behind them.”

“She is going into the medical field,” Perera observes, “but for her to gain this knowledge will give her confidence throughout her daily life as well as in her career.”

And if it hadn’t been for Koscielniak, the lab wouldn’t be nearly as far along, adds Perera, who notes that it is already attracting other student researchers. And it’s still attracting Koscielniak, who is continuing her work with Perera “for Chemistry 499 credit, which is dedicated to research and thesis projects.”

“You’re so involved, you can’t just stop,” she says.

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