From IWU Magazine, Spring 2017 edition

As an IWU senior, Ryan Schonert '16 replicated cosmic dust for lab study

Story by KIM HILL

Ryan Schonert '16
As an Eckley Scholar, Schonert '16 developed a method for producing silicate dusts in the form of a polyethylene pellet so it could be inserted into the spectrometer.

How do you analyze cosmic dust when the closest samples are light years away, in the outer reaches of space? 

“It turns out, a lot of the materials we think comprise cosmic dust can be made in the lab,” said Associate Professor of Physics Thushara Perera. Of course, it is far more complicated than mixing a little carbon monoxide, some amorphous silicate and a bit of oxygen. 

Through funding as an Eckley Scholar, IWU chemistry major Ryan Schonert ’16 spent the summer of 2015 working under Professor of Chemistry Rebecca Roesner’s guidance to develop a procedure for producing magnesium and iron silicate dusts in the lab. In addition, he developed a method for producing the dust in the form of a polyethylene pellet so it could be inserted into the spectrometer. 
“[This] work crosses the disciplines of physics, astronomy, and chemistry, and that makes it exciting,” said Perera, who called the collaboration with Roesner “both necessary and enriching to the project.” He says if not for the “neighborly atmosphere” between small academic departments, “I could not imagine enlisting a chemistry major such as Ryan and collaborating so closely with a chemistry colleague like Professor Roesner on this work.” 

Schonert produced about 20 high-quality samples, Perera says; enough to put this phase of the project on hold until the spectrometer is completed. “We have about eight that test 99 percent pure,” says Perera. “We hope to take on another chemistry student to produce new types of analog cosmic dusts once the instrumentation is up and running.” 

According to Perera, Schonert showed an aptitude for figuring things out on his own and a fearlessness for trying new solutions to a problem — important qualities when working on a project with so many unknowns and “crucial for success in a research environment, such as graduate school or industry.”

Schonert said that the independence he was given was his favorite aspect of the project. Now a graduate student in forensic chemistry at Penn State University, he’s working on a research project involving the transfer of a far less cosmic substance: gunshot residue.

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