Lecturer in the Spotlight: Annemieke Petrignani
'One of the best pieces of advice I've ever had is: open things up and look'
Annemieke Petrignani studies organic chemistry in space. She lectures on interstellar and circumstellar matter in the Physics & Astronomy Master's programme. She is also one of the initiators of How to Make an Alien: Life on Other Planets, an interdisciplinary Honours course that will be offered for the first time this year to second and third-year Bachelor’s students.
Research on extraterrestrial molecules: it appeals to the imagination, but what exactly is it about? Petrignani explains: 'I study organic chemistry in space. Chemistry in space is very different from that on Earth because in space there's a vacuum and everything is extremely cold, so you would actually expect nothing to happen at all. Yet there is energy in the form of radiation. Chemistry in space, therefore, is light-driven chemistry. In my research I'm trying to find out what organic molecules in space look like. These are the proto-building blocks of planets and stars, and eventually of life.'
Together with lecturers from other disciplines, Petrignani is responsible for the interdisciplinary Honours course How to Make an Alien: Life on Other Planets. 'The course is about what alternative life could look like, by approaching it from biology, astronomy and chemistry. What is the chemical foundation of life, for example? What fundamental conditions need to be met?' Petrignani and her colleagues are very enthusiastic about this opportunity to learn from each other. 'We've been working together for a couple of months to streamline the course and would actually really like to take it ourselves. We don't necessarily know each other's fields particularly well, so we're able to learn a lot from each other.'
Chemical physics or physical chemistry?
Those who do not know better might think that Petrignani has a background in chemistry or astronomy. However, she actually comes from experimental physics. 'My research really is at the cutting edge of several disciplines; you could say chemical physics or physical chemistry. Or actually, I'm researching large molecules, so, by definition, it’s not physics; but there is a lot of resemblance in the kind of experiments I do. The techniques I use are not plug & play; there's no device you can just go and out and buy. I really have to put everything together myself, know every wire, mirror and laser inside out to be able to run an experiment. I'm used to that from experimental physics.'
It starts with observing
Working with such vulnerable equipment also means that you should not be afraid when things break down. 'One of the best pieces of advice I've ever had, and which I'm passing on to my PhD student, is: open things up and look. Observe. That's so crucial in science. Whether you look at what's happening, what's in the literature or what you learn from others, it all starts with observing. So when you open up such a device, what do you see? That a wire is loose, or a fuse has blown, or there is a burn mark somewhere, and then you already know an awful lot more.'
It is also important for students to get back to basics if there is something they do not know, says Petrignani. 'Try to understand what you do know, and then what questions you want to ask. Discuss it with a fellow student, go and try something yourself, talk about your new findings, do something iterative.'
She sees a paradox in the way the educational environment has improved since the time she was a student herself: 'We used to be thrown in much more at the deep end. That wasn't necessarily better, because it also led to a huge number of students giving up; however, those who made it through had developed a greater problem-solving ability. And this is something you will come up against sooner or later. If it's not during your studies, then it'll come later when you start work. So I think there's still one more step to be taken. We have created an environment for students that approaches perfection, and now, to make it even more perfect, however silly this might sound, we need to make it a little less perfect.'