In the dense regions of space where stars and planets form, icy films made from a mixture of simple molecules grow on cold cosmic dust grains. Cosmic radiation releases low energy electrons into these thin icy layers, and can induce chemical changes in these icy mixtures, potentially producing the complex chemical precursors to life. Stephen McGurk joined Martin McCoustra at Heriot-Watt University to develop a new laboratory experiment seeking to understand this process in his project 'Probing the chemical evolution of the universe'. Through operating the equipment under conditions that mimic the very low pressures and temperatures of the interstellar gas clouds in which stars and planets are formed, the apparatus allowed Stephen to irradiate simple icy mixtures with electrons of well-defined energy, and to investigate the nature of the irradiation products in both the solid and gas phases.
"I have always had a curiosity about how our planet and indeed life came to exist, and through the placement, have been able to, in part, understand the behaviour of molecules in space and the chemical evolution of our universe. I have come to appreciate the dedication required and rewards available in this area of chemistry, and am keen to pursue a PhD related to this topic."