Virginia Initiative on Cosmic Origins

In the past decade, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has transformed our view of planets surrounding other stars. Can those “exoplanets” support life? This is a key question of astrochemistry and astrobiology. We are working to understand how exoplanetary systems form, as well as how water, organics and other key chemical species are delivered to their surfaces. 

This is an extremely complex problem, but one which is becoming more and more tractable with advanced computing techniques and with improving observational and experimental constraints. The revolutionary capabilities of the Atacama Large Millimeter/ Submillimeter Array (ALMA) can now resolve the fine details of protoplanetary disks, including intriguing ring-like “gaps” that may indicate the locations of protoplanetary orbits.  In addition, ALMA can measure the chemical inventory of these disks from the particular frequencies of detected molecular lines. However, to understand the implications of these radio spectra requires the combination of detailed data analysis, laboratory work, and astrophysical and astrochemical modeling.

The Virginia Initiative on Cosmic Origins (VICO) was established in 2018 to take on these kinds of scientific questions through the collaboration of 21 affiliated faculty and six postdoctoral fellows at UVA in the fields of astronomy, chemistry, computer sciences, environmental sciences and materials science, as well as scientists at the neighboring National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Possible areas of study

We are recruiting a cohort of graduate students who will work on topics related to the formation of habitable planets and their host stars in order to address the broader question of what are the key physical and chemical processes that control the outcome(s) of planet formation. Students funded by the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellowship will focus on the development of theoretical astrophysical and astrochemical models of star-forming cores and planet-forming protoplanetary disks, guided by experimental laboratory constraints, which can be tested by new observational studies of such systems, especially with the ALMA telescope array and soon the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Mentoring plan and resources

Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellows will have coordinated access to the following resources and opportunities.

Supplemental Advising and Course Selection

Students will have a primary advisor in their formal PhD disciplinary home as well as the opportunity to conduct research with a VICO faculty member in a second department.  With guidance from their advisors, students will integrate supplementary courses in the field of cosmic origins within their doctoral training, such as The Interstellar Medium (ASTR 5420), Stellar Astrophysics (ASTR 5430), Radio Astronomy (ASTR 5340), Molecular Spectroscopy (CHEM 5250), Astrochemistry (CHEM 5260), Reaction Kinetics and Dynamics (CHEM 5224), Surface Science (MSE 7220) and Geochemistry (EVGE 5850), among many other offerings.

North American ALMA Science Center (NAASC)

NAASC is located at NRAO Charlottesville on UVA’s campus. Students working on observational projects will have direct access to training from NRAO scientists in processing the complex data sets coming from the ALMA interferometer. In addition, the cohort will have opportunities to take advantage of summer computing courses hosted by Advanced Research Computing Services (ARCS) and NRAO-based resources, including proposal writing workshops.

Topical Research Groups

During the first two years of study leading up to candidacy exams, students will regularly attend and contribute to group meetings in Astrochemistry, Star Formation, and Protoplanetary Disks.  These meetings will provide fellows with a rich interactive experience with the other students, postdocs and faculty and opportunities to present their research at least once per semester.

Chalmers University Partnership

All VICO members are invited to meet with the partner initiative at Chalmers University of Technology in person or digitally once per semester for a day-long workshop of research updates and brainstorming new ideas.  Fellows will actively participate in these events, presenting talks at one or both workshops each year as part of their preparation to complete candidacy requirements in their home department and to improve their presentation skills. 

Conference Travel

Early-stage conference participation is critical to forming new collaborations and gaining exposure to new areas of research and analytical techniques.  Students will receive financial support to present their work at one moderate-sized academic conference during each of their second and third years of enrollment.

Grants and Publications

Fellows will be generating publishable results during their first two years.  In addition to training in scientific writing from their advisors, they will have the opportunity to participate in group peer review with other graduate students and postdocs. They will also be strongly encouraged to write proposals for open calls for telescope time, including ALMA, and to apply to University-based and national fellowship programs, including opportunities sponsored by NSF and NASA.

Summer Research Abroad

Fellows will have priority consideration for extended summer research appointments at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenberg, Sweden, with Jonathan Tan and at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics at Garching, Germany, with Paola Caselli.  Fellows will benefit from these valuable opportunities for substantive interaction with a non-UVA research group that will provide new perspectives on their research and enhanced visibility within career development networks.