Alessandra Canta receives 2021 Captain Jonathan Fay Prize

May 20, 2021
Canta Headshot

The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study is pleased to announce the 2021 recipients of the Captain Jonathan Fay Prize. The three winners were selected from among 74 Harvard College seniors awarded the Thomas Temple Hoopes Prize by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences this year.

Hoopes Prize recipients are recognized for their exceptional undergraduate projects. The work of the Fay Prize winners are drawn from this group and are, in the opinion of a selection committee made up of senior Harvard Faculty members, the most outstanding imaginative works or pieces of original research in any field.

Alessandra Canta, a joint concentrator in chemistry and astrophysics, was honored for “Unlocking the Key to Life: Observation and Formation of Nitriles in Protoplanetary Disks.”

The chemical composition of protoplanetary disks around young stars affects the chemical habitability of planets and whether they can host life. Nitriles are key to reactions that lead to the formation of molecules such as RNA and amino acids. Canta’s thesis suggests a hidden reservoir of nitriles that was previously unknown and expands our understanding of the formation of CN bonds during planet formation, potentially shedding new light on the origins of life.

Karin Öberg, a professor of astronomy who also serves as the director of undergraduate studies in the astronomy department, said of Canta’s thesis, “I have never before seen an undergraduate contributing at this high level to the field of astrochemistry.” The discussion portion of Canta’s thesis, Öberg said, “reveals a deep and penetrating mind with a very unusual command of the literature.” link

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