Karin Öberg

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Karin Öberg
Karin Ingegerd Öberg

August 27, 1982
ResidenceCambridge, Massachusetts
Alma materCalifornia Institute of Technology, Leiden University
Known forDiscovering the first complex molecule in a protoplanetary disk
AwardsHubble Postdoctoral Fellowship, Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship in Physics, Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering
Scientific career
FieldsAstrochemistry, Astronomy
InstitutionsHarvard University, University of Virginia
ThesisComplex processes in simple ices: Laboratory and observational studies of gas-grain interactions during star formation (2009)

Karin Ingegerd Öberg (born August 27, 1982) is a Swedish astrochemist.[1] She is a Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and leader of the Öberg Astrochemistry Group at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.[2] She is best known for her work studying star formation, planet formation, and stellar evolution in relation to organic molecules, which are necessary to determine the origins of life on Earth and elsewhere.[3][4] In April 2015, Öberg's group discovered the first complex organic molecule in a protoplanetary disk.[2][5][6]

Early life[edit]

Karin Öberg was born on August 27, 1982, in Nyköping, Sweden.[1] At age 6, her family relocated to Karlskrona, where she spent the rest of her childhood.[1] She was raised alongside two brothers, and attended public primary, secondary, and high schools.[1] In 2001, Öberg's high school chemistry teacher signed her up for the local Chemistry Olympiad. Öberg ended up winning her way to the international competition, being one of four students to represent Sweden.[7] Also during her senior year at Chapmanskolan Gymnasiest High School, Öberg conducted a project under the supervision of her father, which resulted in her first publication.[1]


Öberg was educated at the California Institute of Technology and graduated cum laude in 2005 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry.[8] She claims that "Caltech was a birth through fire experience into science, which taught [her] to think, to ask questions, and to solve problems as [she] scarce had thought [her] mind capable of."[1] During her time as an undergraduate, Öberg was a member of physical chemistry and astrochemistry research groups led by Dr. Jack Beauchamp and Dr. Geoffrey Blake, respectively.[1] Conducting research in these groups resulted in two publications for Öberg.[1] Dr. Geoff Blake was especially influential to Öberg because he ushered her interest in astrochemistry, the field in which she researches today.[1] Öberg's passion for astrochemistry was solidified when Dr. Blake took his group to visit the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.[1]

Following her undergraduate studies, Öberg took up a Ph.D. position at Leiden University in the Netherlands under the supervision of Dr. Ewine van Dishoeck and Dr. Harold Linnartz.[1] She spent four years combining laboratory simulation and astronomical observation to study the chemistry and dynamics of interstellar ice.[4] This research led to a thesis, titled "Complex processes in simple ices: Laboratory and observational studies of gas-grain interactions during star formation."[1] Öberg presented the different chapters at conferences worldwide and several institutions in the United States.[1] The doctoral thesis was defended on September 16, 2009.[1] Besides conducting this research, Öberg supervised two M.Sc. projects and served as a teaching assistant for courses on Pulsars and research for undergraduate students.[1] She graduated cum laude with a Ph.D. in Astronomy from Leiden University in 2009.[8]


After Öberg received her Ph.D. in 2009, NASA awarded her a Hubble Postdoctoral Fellowship.[9] She used this funding to research at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics until August 2012.[8] During this time, she studied the radioastronomical observations of organic molecules in young stars, such as protoplanetary disks and protostars.[4]

Next, Öberg worked at the University of Virginia as a visiting scholar and Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Astronomy until June 2013.[8] At U.Va., Öberg conducted laboratory ice experiments and studied spatially- and spectrally-determined astronomical observations, both of which focused on the processes that take place during the chemical evolution of a planet or star.[4]

Öberg returned to Harvard in July 2013 as an Assistant Professor of Astronomy.[8] Here, she formed the Öberg Astrochemistry Group.[8] This group conducts research at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.[8] Öberg is currently still working with this group in Cambridge, Massachusetts.[8]

Öberg serves on the board of the Society of Catholic Scientists.[10]


Öberg has published over 63 refereed articles, 25 of those as the first author, and has been cited over 3250 times.[11] Her main domain of work currently pertains to astrochemistry and its effect on planet formation.[12] The Öberg Astrochemistry Group, her current research group, states that their main research addresses the following:[3]

1. the chemical evolution present during star and planet formation and its effects on planet compositions,

2. the fundamental physical chemical processes that underpin this evolution,

3. and the development of new molecular probes of different aspects of star and planet formation.

The group's research is composed of laboratory ice simulations and radio and infrared observations of astronomical behaviors and information.[3]

Discovery of a complex molecule in a protoplanetary disk[edit]

On April 9, 2015, the Öberg Astrochemistry Group published a paper stating they detected the first complex carbon molecule in a protoplanetary disk, this molecule being methyl cyanide.[2][5] Methyl cyanide (CH3CN) is thought to be important for the origins of life because it contains carbon-nitrogen bonds, which make up amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.[13] Up until this discovery, it was unclear if these molecules could exist in abundance in young disks because of their turbulent and chaotic nature.[13] Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), Öberg's group was able to survey the orbital debris of the newly formed star MWC 480, to discover enough methyl cyanide to fill all of Earth's oceans and the presence of other simpler molecules such as hydrogen cyanide.[5][13][14] This discovery is significant because it shows that the backbone of life, complex carbon bonds, are not exclusive to our Solar System.[5] In an interview, Öberg stated that comet records suggest the presence of complex organic molecules in other protoplanetary disks as well.[14]

The finding was published in the scientific journal Nature (volume 520), titled "The comet-like composition of a protoplanetary disk as revealed by complex cyanides."[5] It also had media coverage in The Washington Post and LA Times, along with a press release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).[6][15][16]

Selected publications[edit]

  • Öberg, K.; Linnartz, H.; Visser, R.; Van Dishoeck, E. (2009). "Photodesorption of Ices. II. H2O and D2O". The Astrophysical Journal. 693 (2): 1209–1218. arXiv:0812.1918. Bibcode:2009ApJ...693.1209O. doi:10.1088/0004-637x/693/2/1209.
  • Öberg, K.; Guzmán, V.; Furuya, K.; Qi, C.; Aikawa, Y.; Andrews, S.; Wilner, D. (2015). "The comet-like composition of a protoplanetary disk as revealed by complex cyanides". Nature. 520 (7546): 198–201. arXiv:1505.06347. Bibcode:2015Natur.520..198O. doi:10.1038/nature14276. PMID 25855455.
  • Öberg, K.; Boogert, A.; Pontoppidan, K.; Blake, G.; Evans, N.; Lahuis, F.; Dishoeck, E. (2008). "The c2d Spitzer Spectroscopic Survey of Ices around Low‐Mass Young Stellar Objects. III. CH 4" (PDF). The Astrophysical Journal. 678 (2): 1032–1041. arXiv:0801.1223. Bibcode:2008ApJ...678.1032O. doi:10.1086/533432.

Awards and honors[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Öberg, Karin I. (2009). Complex processes in simple ices - Laboratory and observational studies of gas-grain interactions during star formation (Ph.D.). Leiden University.[1]
  2. ^ a b c Öberg, Karin. "Home". The Öberg Astrochemistry Group. Harvard University.
  3. ^ a b c Öberg, Karin. "Research". The Öberg Astrochemistry Group. Harvard University.
  4. ^ a b c d "Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life: Karin Öberg". Simons Foundation. Simons Foundation.
  5. ^ a b c d e Öberg, Karin I.; Guzmán, Viviana V.; Furuya, Kenji; Qi, Chunhua; Aikawa, Yuri; Andrews, Sean M.; Loomis, Ryan; Wilner, David J. (2015). "The comet-like composition of a protoplanetary disk as revealed by complex cyanides". Nature. 520 (7546): 198–201. arXiv:1505.06347. Bibcode:2015Natur.520..198O. doi:10.1038/nature14276. PMID 25855455.
  6. ^ a b "Complex Organic Molecules Discovered in Infant Star System - Hints that the building blocks of the chemistry of life are universal". www.eso.org. Retrieved December 2, 2015.
  7. ^ "33rd International Chemistry Olympiad Results" (PDF). International Chemistry Olympiad. Avon Health Authority.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Öberg, Karin. "Karin Öberg". The Öberg Astrochemistry Group. Harvard University.
  9. ^ "HubbleSite - NewsCenter - NASA Announces 2009 Astronomy and Astrophysics Fellows (02/25/2009) - The Full Story". hubblesite.org. Retrieved December 2, 2015.
  10. ^ https://www.catholicscientists.org/board
  11. ^ "Karin Öberg - Google Scholar Citations". scholar.google.com. Retrieved December 2, 2015.
  12. ^ "Karin Öberg". astronomy.fas.harvard.edu. Retrieved December 2, 2015.
  13. ^ a b c "Complex Organic Molecules Discovered in Infant Star System - NRAO: Revealing the Hidden Universe". public.nrao.edu. Retrieved December 2, 2015.
  14. ^ a b "The Building Blocks of Life Aren't Unique to Our Corner of the Galaxy". Motherboard. Retrieved December 2, 2015.
  15. ^ Feltman, Rachel (April 8, 2015). "For the first time, scientists find complex organic molecules in an infant star system". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved December 3, 2015.
  16. ^ "Eureka! Complex organic molecules found in a young star system". latimes.com. Retrieved December 3, 2015.