Meet the AAS Keynote Speakers: Dr. Noemi Pinilla-Alonso

In this series of posts, we sit down with a few of the keynote speakers of the 244th AAS meeting to learn more about them and their research. You can see a full schedule of their talks here, and read our other interviews here!

Dr. Noemi Pinilla-Alonso (photo courtesy of Noemi Pinilla-Alonso)

Ice Ice Baby!

Dr. Noemi Pinilla-Alonso‘s research is a quest to understand the very origins of our solar system and how it transformed into the home we know today. She focuses on the material that is older and less processed in the solar system: ice. Ice can form deep within the molecular clouds that contain gas and dust, which eventually collapse to form planets. Although most of the ice in the universe is made up of water, ice can also contain molecules such as CO, CO2, CH4, NH3, and CH3OH. By studying these molecules, we can probe the chemistry of the origin of life.

Ice, a vital component of the solar system, holds valuable clues about its formation and evolution. For instance, the ice found on trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs), remnants from the process of planetary formation, can provide insights into the composition of the protoplanetary disk the Solar System originated from. This can also shed light on the formation of rings, debris disks, and planetesimals in the solar system. 

For the longest time, water ice was the only prevalent solid ice detected in the trans-Neptunian belt using ground-based spectroscopy. The sunlight scattered on the surface of TNOs by ice particles containing other molecules can be traced by the mid and far infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum, which cannot be observed using ground-based telescopes. However, with the infrared capabilities of the space-based JWST, we can now finally probe the ice in the solar system and beyond.

Finding ice using JWST

Dr. Pinilla-Alonso is excited about all the science that can be done with JWST, an observatory with instruments she believes “has been thought to do what I exactly wanted to do”! She is particularly eager to uncover the different kinds of ice in the Solar System. Preliminary results indicate that the ice in the Solar System can be very diverse and host a variety of silicates and complex organic molecules. “It would be great to know the inventory for all ices beyond Neptune,” she says. This would help us understand whether the formation vs. evolution scenarios of icy small bodies are more relevant to the building of the solar system. Ultimately, her goal is to understand the whole story of how ice in debris disks, exoplanets, molecular clouds, and planetesimals came about and how they relate to each other. “This is the decade we can really drive some bridges between fields that aim to tell the different stages of the formation of planetary systems with the help of JWST,” she says enthusiastically.

From Spain all the way to Florida

Science has always been entertaining for Dr. Pinilla-Alonso because “it was not just going from A to B. It was how can I go from A to B ?”.  She also enjoyed looking at the stars with her mother and friends and reading books with images of galaxies. Naturally, she put two and two together and decided to pursue her undergraduate studies in physics. Her original plan was to become a high school science teacher, but she discovered she could do so much more in research. She continued to ask questions and spent a few more years doing research, which appealed to her so much that she pursued a master’s degree, followed by a PhD at the Universidad de La Laguna, focusing on planetary science for her doctoral thesis. Prof. Pinilla-Alonso is currently a professor at the Florida Space Institute, University of Central Florida, a long way from her home country of Spain, and she continues to follow her passion for asking questions and doing exciting research.

Follow your passion!

Dr. Pinilla-Alonso has constantly tried to do what she likes and what makes her happy.  “All of us are afraid at some moments, but you just have to overcome it,” she says. “Just breathe and try to be a better person, a better scientist, and a better colleague.”  Her advice to graduate students and early career researchers is to always stay hopeful, believe in yourself, and never stop trying to achieve your dream, no matter how big and impossible it may seem. “Instead of wondering if you are good enough to do it, ask, ‘Why not!?’” she says. “What do I need to do to achieve this? Do I need to study this other thing? Do I need to contact this person, or do I need to work with this team? Let’s think about what I need to do to be there. Then, just work on that.” A career in academia can be long and daunting for the most part, so self-motivation is crucial to go a long way. “Don’t worry. You can do it.  Write it on a [piece of] paper and put it on your workspace or fridge. You can do it; you just have to think [about] how and start working on it!”

To hear more about ice in our universe, tune into Dr. Pinilla-Alonso’s Plenary Lecture at 11:40 AM CT on Monday, June 10th at #AAS244!

Edited by: Maria Vincent

Featured Image Credit: AAS

About Archana Aravindan

I am a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where I study black hole activity in small galaxies. When I am not looking through some incredible telescopes, you can usually find me reading, thinking about policy, or learning a cool language!

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