Riley Havel, a physics major and BHC Scholar, has been working remotely with NASA this summer, studying trends in amino acids from meteorite samples that could reveal how life began during Earth’s formation. Riley’s long-term goal is to become a full-time researcher and attend graduate school to earn a degree in planetary science.

Could you explain more about your work at NASA and what led to you being interested in this as a potential career path?

This summer, I am working remotely with the scientists in the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory at NASA Goddard as an astrobiology undergraduate research associate. The lab studies organic compounds found in meteorite samples and works to answer the prominent question: “Why is Earth wet and alive?” If I were to have gone to Goddard this summer [in-person], I would have been working to quantify cyanide—one of the many molecules found in the prebiotic molecular pool—in meteorite samples. Instead, I am conducting a literature review on another group of organics that play a major role in life as we know it: amino acids. Over 90 different amino acids have been identified and quantified in meteorite samples to date. Finding trends in the amino acid abundances can help scientists understand what kinds of chemical mechanisms were at work on early-Earth and how life began.

During my first year at UCF, I became interested in a career in planetary science. Until I was introduced to research themes within the physics department, I had never considered it as a potential path. Before starting my internship, I was torn between a career in academia or a career at a research institute, such as NASA or the Lunar and Planetary Institute. After the first few days of the internship, I was able to recognize all of the aspects of a career that I wanted in NASA: the opportunity to work with students, the luxury of asking tough questions and then having time to spend answering them, working on projects that interest the general public and encourage young students to pursue a career in science, and constantly learning by collaborating with other scientists from different areas of research.

What leadership positions or research experiences did you have while at UCF? What did you learn from them - how do you think they helped you get where you are today?

My research in Dr. Bennett’s group has exposed me to the field of astrochemistry and has helped me develop the skills of a successful researcher. It has also influenced the courses I take, the conferences I attend, and the plans that I have for the future. My roles in the Society of Physics Students have taught me a lot about the physics community, its overall objectives, and how I can contribute as a member. My roles at BHC have taught me how to work with people outside of my academic field and how to be a good mentor or mentee. Most importantly, the experiences that I have had at UCF have shaped my mindset and helped align both my personal and professional goals.

What are your long-term goals? What are you doing after graduation? How did the BHC help you achieve these goals? 

Long-term, I’d like to become a full-time researcher and regularly host interns. Outside of a career, I’d like to have a lifestyle that includes exercise, time with friends and family, and hobbies, such as reading or baking. After graduation, I plan to pursue graduate school and earn a degree in planetary science. BHC continues to help me achieve these goals by providing mentorship and perspective. Many of my BHC mentors have pushed me to pursue opportunities that I thought I wasn’t qualified for or to try things that I would have otherwise written off. Whenever I need a good push or someone to make me think a little harder about the possibilities, I turn to people like Dean Sheila or Dr. Fisher.

What advice do you have for other students who may want to follow a similar path?

Take classes outside of your major that complement your research interests. Doing this will diversify you as a researcher and inform your perspective. Spend time educating yourself on the opportunities in your department and across campus. Taking some time during your first year to adjust, talk to people about their research, and do a bit of exploration that helps you end up in a research group suited to your interests and work style. Build relationships with people in your field (other undergrads, graduate students, postdocs, and professors). This can be done through student organizations, research opportunities, or on-campus jobs and internships.

What are some of your favorite hobbies?

F45 and UCF sporting events with friends!