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PhD position in quantifying lightning as source of prebiotic molecules on the early Earth and other worlds

About This PhD Project

Project Description

In 1953, Miller & Urey reported the production of amino acids as the result of a lightning discharge experiment. Their study represented the first experimental demonstration of the abiotic production of biomolecules that are essential for the emergence of life on Earth and is to this date regarded as a major breakthrough in origin of life research. However, several important questions remain unanswered, including whether or not lightning actually constituted an important source of organics and nutrients on the early Earth, and how the production of these compounds would change under conditions resembling extrasolar planets. So far, no extrasolar Earth-twin is known to exists. We aim to address these questions with a paired experimental and theoretical approach with the overall goal to determine if lightning can indeed facilitate the emergence of biomolecules under conditions comparable to extrasolar planets.

Dr Eva Stüeken (School of Earth & Environmental Sciences) and Dr Christiane Helling (School of Physics & Astronomy) advertise a fully funded, joint PhD position. The project will focus on utilizing the Miller-Urey experiment in combination with computational chemistry methods as analysis tools.

The Centre for Exoplanet Science is a vibrant research environment. The involved schools are active in several international consortia and collaborations, involving telescopes at observatories worldwide, high-end lab space and members have access to parallel computing facilities at the University of St Andrews.

This position requires a university degree in Physics, Astronomy, Mathematics, Chemistry or Earth Science at an advanced level (e.g. a MPhys or MSc degree or equivalent), and computational skills, completed by the time of employment. The applicant must be eligible for studies at the graduate level of both schools, Physics & Astronomy and Earth & Environmental Sciences. Employment as a PhD student is for 3.5 years ideally starting September/October 2019. This position is open for EU and UK nationals.

The University of St Andrews salaries will be commensurate to the standard scale for PhD students in the UK. The student will be ensured under the regulations of the National Health Service. The successful PhD applicants will have to register at, and comply with, the regulations of the St Leonard’s College Graduate School at the University of St Andrews. The student will have access to courses and transferable skill training through the University’s graduate schools.

Applications are particularly welcome from those with a willingness to commit to the spirit of the Schools and University's aspirations towards equality, diversity and inclusivity. For more information, including case studies, please see

The application package should be sent as one single PDF containing:
Applications are invited for a fully funded PhD position at the University of St Andrews’ Centre for Exoplanet Science. The project will be jointly conducted and supervised at the School of Physics & Astronomy and the School of Earth & Environmental Sciences.
• a curriculum vitae, with a publication list if relevant;
• a statement of interest including a brief description of research interests and relevant experience; • copies of university grades, certificates and/or diplomas;
• two reference letters

The application package should be submitted through the online portal of the School of Physics & Astronomy ( as soon as possible but the latest by 22 April 2019. Please indicate your availability for interviewing during the end of April / beginning of May 2019.

Deadline: 22 April 2019

Contacts: Dr Christiane Helling (School of Physics & Astronomy) and Dr Eva Stüeken (School of Earth & Environmental Sciences) WWW :

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