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Astronomer Danna Qasim wins two prizes for dissertation on methane ice

Former Leiden Observatory PhD candidate Danna Qasim has won no less than two prestigious prizes with her thesis, titled 'Dark ice chemistry in interstellar clouds'. Qasim received the IAU PhD Prize from the IAU. The Astrochemistry Subdivision of the American Chemical Society (ACS) honoured her work with the Outstanding Dissertation Award.

Together with her supervisors Harold Linnartz and Ewine van Dishoeck, Qasim demonstrated that methane can form on icy dust particles in space. This suspicion had existed for some time, but the proof was lacking. The scientists simulated space conditions in the lab: they let hydrogen atoms collide with carbon atoms at minus 263 degrees Celsius (-442 °F, 10 K) in an ultrahigh vacuum environment on an ice-cold surface.

Many astronomers built on Qasim's PhD research, leading to many new publications, including in  Nature Astronomy. Qasim now works as a postdoc at the NASA-Goddard Space Flight Centre.


Methane, known to us as the main compound of natural gas, is one of the simplest hydrocarbons. It consists of a carbon atom with four hydrogen atoms: CH4. On Earth, we mainly know methane as a flammable gas that forms from decaying organic material. The research by Qasim and her supervisors supports the idea that methane on planets such as Uranus and Neptune was probably already present long before our solar system was formed.

Read more about the research – First time methane ice formed in Leiden under space conditions

IAU Phd Prize

On 24 May, the IAU announced the winners of the IAU PhD Prizes. These prestigious awards go to the world's best astronomy PhD students in nine different categories. As many as 104 PhD theses competed. Qasim won in Division B: Facilities, Technologies and Data Science. This earns her a ticket to the next IAU meeting in 2022 in Busan, South Korea, where she will receive her prize.

The Surfreside-3 instrument with which researchers made methane ice on a surface under conditions that apply to investigating the chemistry in interstellar molecular clouds: minus 263 degrees Celsius (10 K) in an ultrahigh vacuum environment. (c) LfA/Leiden Observatory.

Outstanding thesis

Shortly afterwards, the ACS announced the winner of the Astrochemistry Outstanding Dissertation Award 2021: Danna Qasim. From the Astrochemistry Subdivision, she will receive 500 euros in prize money, a $500 travel award from ACS Earth and Space Chemistry, and an invitation to speak at the Astrochemistry Symposium at the Fall 2021 meeting.


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