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Searching for the fundamental building blocks of life

‘I am an experimentalist in heart and soul', says Annemieke Petrignani. Her main research topic changed a number of times during her career. She roughly switched from studying very small molecules in the earth’s atmosphere to large, organic ones in outer space and their role in prebiotic chemistry. And even though she studied physics and has worked at hard-core fundamental physics institutes, she now works at chemistry institute HIMS. But what remained throughout her career is her love for practical experiments: every time she talks about them, her face lights up and you can hear the excitement in her voice.

For instance when she talks about her PhD in atmospheric photophysics at AMOLF. Petrignani: ‘There, we used this really cool technique where you collide small ions with electrons at very high speed, close to the speed of light, but standing still relative to each other. We were able to perform highly sensitive measurements of what happens when the ions recombine with the electrons.'

'That is what makes my heart beat faster: experimental physics, figuring out how to do things, and exploring the limits of what is possible. Back then, it used to take us a year to set up an experiment. The feeling it gives you when such an experiment succeeds is amazing, it feels like such an accomplishment.’

Pushing the limits

For her postdoc Petrignani and her husband moved to Heidelberg, Germany. At the Max Planck Institute she performed experiments involving quantum states of very cold small molecules. ‘Among other techniques, this involved ion storage rings and advanced action spectroscopy, laser spectroscopy. We again tried to push the limits of what’s possible. We managed to get very weak transitions in the state of the molecules, and we designed a very sensitive method and custom equipment to achieve this.’

Annemieke Petrignani
Annemieke Petrignani

During this postdoc Petrignani experienced that being a woman in science can be challenging. ‘I was the first female scientist in the research group, and the first that got pregnant. As it turned out, there was nothing in place for that. Nothing on getting back to work after pregnancy leave, nothing on facilitating breastfeeding, for instance.'

'In Germany it is very common for women to go on leave for a full three years. And many women quit their job. But I did not want that. So I had to design the protocols around having children myself. All this was only ten years ago. It wasn’t bad intent; it was mainly that the situation had never come up. I pioneered there, and many of the protocols I initiated are still in place at the institute. Now, it even has a day care facility on its grounds.’

Switch to astronomy

In 2011 Petrignani and her young family moved back to the Netherlands, where she obtained a position at the Leiden Observatory within the research programme of the Dutch Astrochemistry Network. Suddenly she found herself among astronomers and chemists instead of fundamental physicists.

‘It was a bit hard to again have to adapt to a different field, and to have to leave the equipment I developed behind. But I had a lot to offer. Astronomers use spectroscopy to detect the fingerprints of molecules in space, so my experience with laser spectroscopy was very useful. And the small molecules I studied in Heidelberg are important in the cold molecular clouds in space where planet formation takes place, so my research already had a link with astronomy. But now I started to study the fingerprints of larger, aromatic molecules.’

The switch turned out to be a happy and fruitful one. Petrignani: ‘I discovered that I really liked working within a multidisciplinary team. I love locking myself up inside a laboratory and not emerging from it until an experiment works. But I started to combine this with challenging myself through having discussions with people from other research fields. Exploring other points of view, trying to bring different worlds together, the strong social components in a multidisciplinary field like astrochemistry; all that turned out to also be something that really suits me.’

How to design an alien

After a few years Petrignani therefore decided to apply for a Vidi grant from the Dutch Research Council (NWO), in order to start her own research group within the field of astrochemistry. She received the grant and relocated from Leiden to her current place at the University of Amsterdam.

‘I chose for HIMS because of the expertise and equipment that is present here in the Laser Lab. More specifically, I wanted to work with professor Wybren Jan Buma for his expertise and use the available state-of-the-art equipment on gas-phase spectroscopy.’

At the UvA her work became even more interdisciplinary. She was asked to help design the student course How to design an alien, which involved her working together with biologists. ‘In essence my work is now also includes the search for the building blocks of life or alien life. Biologists look at life on earth and try to reason back, how can this have originated from a molecular basis. I approach the question bottom up: I look at the organic molecules that are present in space, and work from there.’

Receiving the MacGillavry Fellowship meant Petrignani now finally has a permanent contract and can settle down. ‘It also means that I can expand my research, hire extra people for my group. We now focus on a number of big questions. Which organic molecules are present in space? What are their physical properties, how do they evolve under the influence of factors in their environment?'

'And is there perhaps such a thing as fundamental building blocks of life, building block that are truly essential, not just here, but on other planets? And why these? These building blocks may well involve molecules similar to natural amino acids, sugars, and RNA. But what’s interesting is that life here on earth has incorporated only specific organic building blocks out of many possibilities. Why is that? Dedicated experiments investigating these questions are needed. So that’s what I would like to do.’  

Career impact of having children

Petrignani believes initiatives like the MacGillavry Fellowship are important for female scientists, because there are still many biases in place that hold women back in their scientific career. ‘Let me put it this way: there are very few female scientists at my level, even less who have multiple children. In grant applications, you can correct for your “scientific age” for each child. But it’s more complicated than that.

The impact goes beyond grants and the backlash is cumulative. You will have less first author publications than your direct peers. You will probably also have given less conference talks. Because you can’t fly across the world with a small child you are breastfeeding. And if you decline a couple of times, people stop asking you. You become less visible and your H-index is probably also lower.

I have experienced this myself when I applied for other positions. I often came in second or third place with commentary given about my prolonged career stagnation. The way we assess the quality of scientists is still very much based on an out-dated system with traditional gender roles. So I am happy that there are programmes like the MacGillavry that look beyond that.’

CV

1993-2000: MSc in Applied Physics, Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands
2000-2005: PhD at AMOLF, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
2005-2011: Postdoctoral researcher, Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics, Heidelberg, Germany
2011-2016: Postdoctoral researcher at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands
2011-2016: Postdoctoral researcher at Leiden University and Leiden Observatory, the Netherlands
2015: VIDI grant awarded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO)
2016-present: Assistant professor and MacGillavry fellow, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands