01  |  Alejandra Traspas-Muina  |  Nordic Tales 

A Talk With Astrobiologist, Alejandra Traspas-Muina

How was your early life, and what made you venture into the field of science?

I grew up surrounded by artists. My dad used to work as an actor, mostly in the theatre, and my mother did too, but she was more involved with costume and fashion design. I was backstage most of the time and enjoyed watching my parents work immensely. I even dabbled in this world myself. I was involved in some films and TV series until I was 13 or 14. However, I felt it did not fulfill me the same way it did for my parents.

Since I was very young, after my parents would finish work, they would take me outside, and we would talk about the stars and constellations. This fascinated me, and I wanted to learn more each time. My mum used to read me stories about early civilizations and how they observed the sky, trying to understand what lay beyond this dark ‘blanket’ of stars. All I knew then was that I wanted to reach the stars and find answers to all my questions.

As I grew up, I received my first telescope. Seeing the moon up close and planets that I learned about in school — things I could never see with my own eyes — had a massive impact on my interest in science. That’s why I chose to pursue a degree in Astronomy, Astrophysics, and Space Sciences. I became interested in scientific documentaries, TED talks, and conferences, which opened a new scientific world to me. The origin of life! How did life emerge, where did it happen, and is life unique to Earth?

02  |  Alejandra Traspas-Muina  |  Nordic Tales 

The Origins Of Life

Can you elaborate on the central hypothesis of your PhD research regarding the origins of life?

My PhD focuses on experimental astrophysics (a.k.a Astrochemistry). The main goal of my thesis is to offer a systematic experimental approach that will support efforts to understand the limit of molecular complexity in the Universe. I aim to examine the possible formation pathways in the solid phase (at -293 degrees Celsius in ices, because yes, there’s ice in space!) of life’s building blocks, such as amino acids like glycine, and also the precursors to these building blocks, like glycolaldehyde, acetic acid, and methyl formate. Additionally, I’ll investigate their destruction pathways. This research will help astronomers with their observations. When they search for these molecules, our experiments, combined with computational simulations by our colleagues, will assist in their identification. This process brings us closer to understanding molecular complexity in space and its implications for the origin of life. Did life originate on Earth due to its ideal conditions, or were the building blocks formed elsewhere and brought to our planet via meteorites or other rocky body impacts?

03  |  Alejandra Traspas-Muina  |  Nordic Tales 

The Three Facilities

What methodologies and technologies are you utilizing in your research to investigate how life came to Earth?

We currently work on three different state-of-the-art facilities in Europe: a synchrotron (ASTRID2) at the University of Aarhus, Denmark; a tandetron at the Institute of Nuclear Research (ATOMKI) in Debrecen, Hungary; and a Free Electron Laser facility (FELIX) at Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

Inside these facilities, we use specific end stations — machines where we create space-like conditions, including a vacuum and very low temperatures. For these low temperatures in space, we use Kelvins instead of Celsius. 0 degrees Celsius is roughly 273 K, and our experiments usually run at 20 K!

We utilize the three particle accelerators mentioned above to produce lasers made of ions or electrons, depending on the regions of space we aim to simulate. Space is far from empty! There’s a lot happening. Sometimes, the ices I mentioned earlier get processed by various energy sources. We try to replicate these conditions in our labs. This processing allows us to induce chemistry in our ices, mimicking what would happen in space, and leads to the formation of new molecules. Identifying these molecules is essential, so we use different types of spectroscopy to “fingerprint” them. Astronomers can then recognize these patterns with their telescopes. For instance, we use the synchrotron at Aarhus University for vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopy, studying the molecular fingerprints in a specific region of the electromagnetic spectrum. This allows us to categorize these molecules across various spectrum regions, much like taking different types of pictures.

Thoughts On Creativity

How do you believe creativity intersects with scientific rigor in your field?

I’ve always believed that curiosity and creativity are vital for progress in science. Brainstorming is crucial, as is problem-solving. Creativity can jump-start a project. Another essential aspect of being a scientist is communication, not just within your often interdisciplinary team but also to the general public. Expressing your art — in our case, the wonders of the universe — to those unfamiliar with it is invaluable. Having critical thinking paired with creativity is a powerful combination in science. It enables you to conceive diverse potential answers, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and encourages independent thought, an asset to team collaboration.

If you successfully prove your hypothesis, what are the implications for our understanding of the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe?

My hypothesis, combined with the work of the wider astrochemistry community, will contribute to this long-standing question. I don’t believe we’re close to fully understanding the implications for Earth yet. However, each contribution brings us one step closer. With missions set to explore the Icy Moons in our solar system and the observations, models, and experiments in icy cosmic environments, we’re building a roadmap towards a better understanding.

04  |  Alejandra Traspas-Muina  |  Nordic Tales 

05  |  Alejandra Traspas-Muina  |  Nordic Tales 

Advice For Next Generation

Do you have any advice for young women considering a career in science?

Absolutely. Go for it! Sometimes pursuing your passion might mean being away from your loved ones or facing challenges. Questions might arise: “How do I know it’s the right choice?” or “What if I’m not good at it?” The truth is, you won’t know until you try. And you are capable — as capable as you allow yourself to be in any endeavor. All you need is to take the chance. Economic constraints might pose challenges, but the situation has improved in recent years. Scholarships are available for universities with high tuition fees. Institutions aren’t just looking for individuals who can solve problems rapidly; they seek motivated, passionate, and diligent individuals driven by curiosity, those who will leave a mark on the world. As my mother says, “You already have a ‘no’ if you don’t try or ask. So go for it. Go for the ‘yes!'” Remember, it’s okay to change your path. Learning and understanding oneself is never a waste of time. Stay curious, stay creative, and reach for the stars!

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