Out of this world

June 22, 2016

Chemistry associate professor wins the Distinguished Research Award


A small chunk of a meteorite sits on Robert Hilts' desk. He beams proudly over it, as should his future undergraduate students. He purchased the piece of space with funds from his Distinguished Research Award to give his students the opportunity to conduct research on the remains of a genuine shooting star.

Since fall 2006, the associate professor in Chemistry has collaborated with University of Alberta geologist Chris Herd in researching the Tagish Lake meteorite. In January 2000, 56 tonnes of space rocks crash-landed in northwestern British Columbia; the quick-thinking of a local man saved several samples, which eventually found their way to the U of A. Though Robert hadn’t worked with meteorites before, he knew that he would be able to apply his PhD-level knowledge of chemistry to the organic compounds they were looking for in the meteorite.

“I have to confess that at the time, I knew very little about meteorites,” says Robert. “I knew what they were, but I had no idea that there were so many different types of meteorites or that they could be drenched in prebiotic molecules, like amino acids, carboxylic acids, nucleobases—all the building blocks of life are in these carbonaceous chondrites.”

Over the past 10 years, the dynamic duo of Chris and Robert has published papers and, as a side effect of storing the meteorite fragments, may have revolutionized cold curation storage—attracting the interest of NASA.

“At NASA, they use nitrogen, so when we first suggested argon, a lot of people were dumbfounded,” he says. The idea originated from his earlier days working with highly air-sensitive compounds at the University of Alberta. “The argument we used was that even though we tend to think of nitrogen as inert, it isn’t—nitrogen can actually form compounds, whereas argon is utterly inert and won’t react with anything.”

Using argon in the glovebox (the sealed chamber in which researchers can interact with the meteorites) stopped destructive reactions that change the original meteorite material. Chris and Robert’s paper on cold curation will likely become the “reference paper for the next generation of gloveboxes and facilities built on Earth for astromaterials.”

It’s because of his astounding work that Robert receives MacEwan University’s Dr. Sherrill Brown Distinguished Research Award—and perhaps to recognize all his years of humble laboratory work.

“For years, I’ve been labouring in the shadows on research when it wasn’t part of my job description,” he recalls. “Research was something I did on my own. To me, it wasn’t so much a chore as a hobby.”

Times have changed at MacEwan, as the university positions itself as a research-focused institution with teaching and learning at its core. Faculty members in all areas of the university are exploring research, scholarly and creative activities—and Robert’s has been out of this world. He will be presented with the award at the Convocation ceremony for the Faculty of Arts and Science.

But Robert is quick to credit everyone who has had an integral part in his success—Martin Cowie at the University of Alberta, Tris Chivers at the University of Calgary, and of course, Chris Herd at the University of Alberta.

“Chris holds us to the highest possible standard, and that means what we publish is A1, and people can tell. We won’t publish something unless it’s the very best we can do. That makes our research and our facility world-renowned.”

Robert will be embarking on additional meteorite research with NWA-1180—the meteorite he recently purchased. Though not part of the Tagish Lake collection, NWA-1180 fell through the atmosphere the same year, and Robert hopes to give his MacEwan students an opportunity to research the piece of space stuff that is older than Earth.

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