Saint Louis, MO

Saint Louis University student conducts a research of life on Saturn's largest moon

George Vandervalk

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SAINT LOUIS, MO — Steven Skaggs, a chemistry graduate student at Saint Louis University or SLU, has proposed a research to the Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology or FINESST program. The proposal was selected and the research will be funded by FINESST.

The assistant professor of chemistry at SLU, Paul Bracher, Ph.D., said that this is an exciting accomplishment for a first-year graduate student. “Only twelve percent of proposals were selected from an elite group of talented students, which is a testament to the strength of his proposal,” Bracher said of Skaggs.

Steven Skagg's proposal entitled “Organic Deliquescence and Chemical Evolution on Hydrocarbon Worlds" was at the 32 proposals chosen out of 835 proposals submitted to FINESST. The proposals were selected by Planetary Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate or SMD

Skagg will receive a three-year grant with a total of $125,986 to fund the research. Joining the Bracher Group, Skagg's research will find chemical reactions in an environment with controlled organic humidity specifically designed to mimic the atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon, Titan.

FINESST will fund student-designed research projects that donate to SMD's science, technology and exploration goals. In 2019, NASA has announced SMD's next mission is to launch a rotorcraft-lander, or miniature helicopter, to Titan’s surface in 2027.

“A goal of this project is to generate some ideas of what a mission like Dragonfly should look out for to gauge early signs of life,” Bracher said. “We know what that might look like on Earth, but what would that look like on a terrestrial body that’s covered with hydrocarbon solvent instead of water?”

Paul Bracher said that this Titan exploration will be the next big thing in the search of planetary organic chemistry. He then compares this research to the Apollo mission to the moon in the 1960s. Bracher also said that SLU students have applied for similar program before this FINESST program. FINESST is a relatively new program, replacing NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowships in 2019.

Thomas Campbell, Ph.D., an A&S 2018 SLU alumnus, has won a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship for the 2017-2018 academic year for his project, “Prebiotic Chemistry in Hypersaline Aqueous Media Encountered on Terrestrial Planets”. His proposal was included in 33 awards selected by NASA out of 197 applications from students across the U.S.

Steven Skagg is in love with science and will invest his knowledge in science to the next generation by becoming a high school science teacher.

“I found that I enjoy helping others learn and grow,” he said. “I’m excited to give back.”

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