Jennifer Bergner: deep space chemistry

Ai generated planets created by Jennifer Bergner

By Sara C.P. Williams

Millions of light years away from Earth, atoms collide and merge; chemical structures assemble and fall apart again. The same elements that built our planet float through outer space. Yet the reactions they undergo are quite different, thanks to the absence of gravity, the presence of high-energy radiation, and extreme temperatures and pressures. 

By recreating these extraterrestrial chemical reactions in cryogenic vacuum chambers, Dr. Jennifer Bergner illuminates the chemical processes accompanying the formation of new planets, and how planets may become hospitable to life. 

Bergner, who joined the College of Chemistry as an assistant professor in January 2023, is as likely to be found mixing chemicals in the lab as she is poring over the latest data from the James Webb Space Telescope (WEBB). She has come to Berkeley after a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago. 

“This is an incredibly exciting time in the field of astrochemistry and I’m thrilled to be launching my lab here at Berkeley,” says Bergner. “Right now, we’re learning new things about planet formation at a very rapid pace.”

“Crazy molecules that shouldn’t exist”

Jennifer Bergner. Photo Brittnay Hosea-Small

Growing up in Virginia, Bergner always loved science. A great high school chemistry teacher helped her fall in love with the minutiae of chemical structures and reactions. 

“Chemistry has provided me with these problems that are incredibly challenging
but can be methodically worked out,” says Bergner. “Whenever I get an answer, or discover something new, I find it so rewarding.”

As a University of Virginia undergraduate,
Bergner majored in chemistry and carried out research analyzing levels of pharmaceutical contamination in wastewater. Then, in her senior year, she went to a seminar given by the astrochemist Eric Herbst — who studies reactions that occur in outer space. It would change the trajectory of her career. 

“I felt like I had just spent three and a half years learning what chemistry was, and then this scientist came in and started talking about all these crazy molecules that shouldn’t exist,” recalls Bergner. “But they do exist, because the chemistry is happening in these really exotic conditions.”

She was absolutely fascinated and, by the time she started her Ph.D. in Chemistry at Harvard, she had decided to pursue astrochemistry. She connected with an advisor in the Astronomy Department and began straddling the fields of astronomy and chemistry— something she has become increasingly adept at over the time.  

Focused on ice

Under the right physical conditions, molecules that never freeze on Earth— like O2 and N2— turn into solid ice. These conditions, it turns out, are ubiquitous elsewhere in the universe and some of the most pertinent chemistry that happens during planet formation occurs in mixed, condensed ices.  

Early in graduate school, Bergner decided to focus her work on these ices. In the lab, she simulated conditions under which these ices could form. At the same time, she collected data from powerful spectroscopic telescopes that reported the conditions in far-away regions of space where stars and planets are forming. 

Using this combination of approaches, she discovered— among other things— how
excited oxygen atoms, formed when energetic radiation hit certain ices, could contribute to the formation of organic molecules.

 “Understanding how organic complexity can emerge in this strange physical realm is a big goal for this area of science. The chemically complex materials we are learning about could go on to be feedstock for origins of life chemistry in a later stage.”

Connecting the dots

Most recently, Bergner was a NASA Sagan Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Chicago. Rather than centering her research among astrophysicists or chemists, she was based in the geophysical sciences department. Being immersed in a new field, she says, helped her think about astrochemistry in a new way— she integrated data on remnant materials found in our own solar system, like comets, into her research. 

“With astrochemistry, you constantly have to bring multiple angles together. The telescope data gives us snapshots of the chemical composition of these environments and the lab experiments give us a mechanistic understanding of how chemical processes might happen,” says Bergner. “But you also need to consider the physical dynamics that are going on.”

With her move to Berkeley, Bergner hopes she’ll be able to pull even more new approaches into her studies on early planet formation. Being back in a chemistry department, she’s looking forward to applying new physical chemistry techniques that can be used to analyze the reactions she carries out. 

“We are already building an ice lab here, complete with vacuum systems that let us mimic space-like conditions,” says Bergner. “I’ll be continuing to analyze how volatile molecules behave physically and chemically in these conditions.”

Bergner will also be using data from the WEBB, which was launched in December 2021, to enhance her research. 

“In the last decade or so, we’ve mostly relied on radio wavelength data, which gives us access to molecules in the gas phase, but a lot of what I’m interested in is in the ice phase,” she says. “WEBB is going to allow us to actually directly measure the composition of ices in these star- and planet-forming regions.”

Bergner credits her constant curiosity about the universe with keeping her motivated daily. 

“This is just such an intrinsically cutting-edge topic,” she says. “Some exciting questions to research going forward include: How do planets form? Where did our water come from here on earth? Can icy bodies deliver organic precursors to new planets? We are just getting started.”