Quantum Chemistry & Spectroscopy

Infrared spectroscopy can help find aliens on remote worlds, model the global warming potential of new compounds & much more. 

Aliens are out there! (Probably.) But how will we find them? Probably by finding unexpected molecules produced by life – called biosignatures – in their planet’s atmosphere using infrared astronomical spectroscopy.

Ozone-destroying chemicals are being replaced by new gases, but will these cause global warming? How can we determine if a country is violating international agreements and burning too many fossil fuels? Are cars producing harmful pollutants?

Infrared spectroscopy (Module 8, HSC Chemistry) is an essential tool to answer these and many other questions regarding our planet and universe.

What Students will do

Students will use research-level computer programs to solve quantum mechanical equations that model how molecules absorb infrared radiation. The resulting infrared spectra will be used by students to explore hypotheses both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial.

Student hypotheses are driven by their interests, focusing on identification of gaseous small molecules remotely in astrophysical, industrial or environmental contexts. For example, one hot research topic is determining how biosignature gases such as phosphine (maybe on Venus!) could be distinguished from other common atmospheric gases. You could explore how to find technosignatures (gases only produced by intelligent life) or help follow through on a recent UNSW discovery that new refrigerant gases called hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) could have extremely dangerous global warming potential. Industrial processes, pollution or bushfire modelling; pick something that interests you and follow a scientific journey to find out something new. 

Subjects [useful, not essential]

  • Chemistry
  • Physics

Prerequisite Study

  • None

Areas of Student Interest

  • Biosignatures, Scientific Search for Aliens
  • Exoplanets, Astrophysics
  • Spectroscopy
  • Quantum chemistry & physics
  • Computational chemistry

Lead Academic: Dr Laura McKemmish - Senior Lecturer, School of Chemistry 

Laura McKemmish

Laura considers herself to be a quantum chemist and molecular physicist. Her expertise is in theoretical and computational modelling of molecules, particularly their spectroscopy. She loves interdisciplinary work and combining interesting methods with interesting applications. One characteristic of her scientific research is to look at new ways of investigating and solving particular problems that are inspired by a unusual perspective, such as from the lens of a different field. 

Away from work, Laura loves hobbies and crafts of all descriptions, such as soap making, painting-by-numbers, diamond art and jigsaw puzzles.



Juan Zapata

Mentor: Juan Camilo Zapata Trujilo

Juan is a second-year PhD student in the School of Chemistry at UNSW, Sydney. He uses computational molecular spectroscopy to help astronomers identify molecules that may indicate the presence of alien life in outer space. Originally from Colombia, Juan enjoys listening to some salsa music and is always happy to give approximate translations from Aussie slang to Colombian slang. For example, mate would be parce in Colombia. The one thing that Juan loves the most about Australia is TimTams; literally, the best chocolate biscuits ever made in human history, so he says.


Mentor: Anna Syme  

Anna Syme

Anna Syme is a final year PhD student in the School of Chemistry at UNSW who loves data visualisation. Anna is investigating the variation of the proton to electron mass ratio across cosmological time. Using computational molecular spectroscopy Anna aims to find the best molecular transition to constrain this mass ratio, to help distinguish between Beyond Standard Model theories. Anna is a huge fan of travelling to faraway places, and while acknowledges her lack of language skills, tries to learn thank you in the language of every country she visits. Originally from Brisbane Anna is a proud Maroons supporter.