Jason Dworkin, chief of the Astrochemistry Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is receiving the 2015 Maryland Chemist Award on Dec. 9. The award is given each year by the Maryland Section of the American Chemical Society for outstanding achievement in pure or applied chemistry, chemical engineering or chemical education.
Dworkin is being recognized for his accomplishments in astrochemistry, a field in which chemistry is used to investigate how the solar system and the objects in it formed. His research focuses on identifying organic - or carbon-rich - compounds in meteorites, comets and asteroids. The organic compounds relevant to astrobiology - the ones used by life on Earth and the precursors to those compounds - are of particular interest to Dworkin and his team.
"Astrochemistry is a very exciting area of research, and the topic particularly caught the committee's attention this year," said Angela Sherman, chair of the awards committee for the Maryland section. "Jason has done a lot of impressive work that has contributed a great deal to our understanding of the early solar system and the chemical precursors of life on Earth."
Dworkin describes the research conducted in his lab as similar to forensic science. The event under investigation in this case is the formation of the solar system, and during the past few billion years, much of the original evidence - the initial geologic record of events - has been altered by chemical and physical processes. Important clues are carried by comets and asteroids, which are remnants of the early solar system. Meteorites also hold valuable clues, though these objects are less pristine once they have landed on Earth.
The amount of sample available from such sources is extremely limited, so Dworkin and his team specialize in the development of techniques to conduct sophisticated chemical analyses on tiny amounts of material. These analyses include isolating and identifying a wide range of organic compounds and distinguishing the compounds that originated on Earth from those that likely originated in space.
In 2009, members of the team reported the first identification of an amino acid in material from a comet. Small amounts of glycine, the type of amino acid found in the comet, are sometimes incorporated into proteins made by living organisms on Earth. Another study determined that some nucleobases - building blocks of DNA - found in meteorites were likely created in space. These and other discoveries made by Dworkin's group contribute to a growing body of evidence that the chemistry inside asteroids and comets is capable of making the precursors of essential biological molecules.
Dworkin also serves as the project scientist for NASA's OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) mission. OSIRIS-REx will be the first U.S. mission to study a near-Earth asteroid and send a sample back to Earth for analysis. The launch window commences in September 2016.
Sherman is presenting the award to Dworkin on behalf of the Maryland section during an honorary dinner at Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore.
"I am honored and humbled at being selected as Maryland Chemist of the Year for 2015," said Dworkin. "I am grateful that my work in organic analysis of meteorites and preparing for the OSIRIS-REx sample return from asteroid Bennu in service of NASA is being recognized by my fellow chemists."
Dworkin earned an A.B. degree with distinction in biochemistry from Occidental College in Los Angeles and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from University of California, San Diego. He has worked for Goddard since 2002.
The Maryland section of the American Chemical Society promotes awareness and interest in chemistry through meetings, community outreach and involvement with students of chemistry and science. The Maryland Chemist Award, established in 1962, specifically recognizes the achievements of scientists who conduct their work in the state of Maryland.