In this second part of our ‘Asian Women in Tech’ series, we take a look at the achievements of “Queenie” Hoi Shan Chan, whose work focus is literally out of this world, and whose career thus far includes a spell at no less than NASA.
Childhood dreams don’t always evolve into reality, but for Hong Konger “Queenie” Hoi Shan Chan, the calling was always science, and that’s how her journey has proceeded. After a glamorous-sounding spell as a “Fellow” at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC), she’s now back in academe, teaching at universities in the UK, namely the Open University and Royal Holloway, University of London.
Queenie’s two-year spell at NASA’s JSC (2013-15) involved research into the cosmological origins of life, and her prior academic career seems to have prepared her well for the field of Astrobiology. Queenie’s BSc was in Earth Sciences, at the University of Hong Kong (2008, followed by a PhD in Planetary Science at Imperial College, London (2008-11). Then came a year as Postdoctoral Fellow at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), (2011-12).
At NASA’s JSC, Queenie studied organic molecules trapped inside meteorites. These can exhibit a phenomenon known as homochirality. According to USRA (Universities Space Research Association), “Chirality refers to 3D, non-superimposable molecular forms that are mirror images of one another (think left and right hands). Homochirality is a biological phenomenon that is observed in amino acids and sugars. This results in a chain of organic molecules that have the same chiral form. While homochirality has yet to be fully understood, many theories abound about how it affected the original formation of the macromolecules needed to produce living organisms.”
Queenie’s approach was to analyse halite crystals, more commonly known as rock salt, contained in meteorites that crash land on earth. In these crystals are aqueous fluids that may be important to an understanding of the origins of terrestrial life.
The first step was to check for the presence of organic molecules using Raman Spectroscopy, a procedure that investigates molecular bonds via photon (light-particle) interaction. Then came extraction of the amino acids via wet-chemistry procedures. Finally, through chromatography and mass spectrometry, Queenie could determine if homochirality was present in these molecules.
Comments Queenie, “My research is in the areas of biogeochemistry and astrobiology involved the study of the distribution of organic materials in extraterrestrial objects, plus the characterization of the organics that are significant to the origin of life, and interpretation of the synthetic origins of the organics contained in meteorites. Organic compounds have been detected in the halites. We aimed to characterize the organic contents, in particular the amino acid distribution. We also studied meteoritic organics in other mineral phases, such as magnetite and carbonates. So, in brief, we were trying to find the answer to the origin of life in the dazzling blue salt grains.”
Today, while a teacher at the University of London, Queenie’s interest in meteorites and their contents remains. In fact, she invites those in possession of a meteorite, presumably meaning its Earthly remains, to contact her. “Meteorites are invaluable materials for teaching and research at Royal Holloway. If you are interested in considering a donation of meteorite samples, I would love to hear from you.” (See https://pure.royalholloway.ac.uk/portal/en/persons/queenie-hoi-shan-chan(3827caaa-7abf-4b95-a81a-3d1ba4405a0c).html)
To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, “If I have seen farther, it was because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.” He probably didn’t realize that his colleagues might, one day, need to include among those intellectual “giants” a woman scientist from Hong Kong.