Using Approximate Spectroscopy to find Indicators of Life on other Planets

Aliens are out there! (Probably.) But how will we find them? What kind of signatures does life leave behind? How easy or hard is it to distinguish between these molecular traces of life? It’s very hard to just get in a rocket and travel to an exoplanet though that would be cool. So, we need different methods to determine which exoplanets may or may not have life.  

What Students will do

In this project students will use computational quantum chemistry to produce approximate infrared spectra of a variety of different molecules and apply this knowledge determine how habitable or inhabitable exoplanets may be and how difficult it would be to determine this. 


  • Physics
  • Chemistry

Prerequisite Study

  • Good competency and confidence with computers (Installing software and using customised options with different programs.) 

Areas of Student Interest

  • Computational quantum chemistry
  • Infrared spectroscopy
  • Astrophysics  


Lead Academic: Laura McKemmish - 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. Laura is building a research group that will focus on new and innovative method development linked with interesting applications in a variety of different fields, with fundamental chemistry and physics a particular interest. 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. 



Anna Syme

PhD Student: Anna Syme  

Anna Syme is an award winning 2nd year PhD student in the School of Chemistry at UNSW. Under the guidance of Dr Laura McKemmish and Dr Maria Cunningham, 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.