May 29, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 17

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    Munir Humayan, Assistant Professor in Geophysical Sciences, the College

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Munir Humayan (left to right) and Kurt Henriksen, who runs the Natural Sciences Teaching Lab, are joined by Ellen Currano, one of Humayan's students, to set up equipment to run the Miller-Urey experiment.
    Munir Humayun specializes in making the seemingly inaccessible accessible, whether it be prying loose the secrets of a meteorite from Mars or from a volcanic rock that carries chemical information from thousands of miles below Earth's surface. It is a skill Humayun, an Assistant Professor in Geophysical Sciences and the College, has transferred from the laboratory to the classroom.

    Humayun teaches two undergraduate classes at Chicago and also operates an undergraduate research internship program. He created one of the classes, Chemistry of the Earth, and has developed his own special approach to the other, Natural Sciences 101 in the Core curriculum.

    He had begun to design a new course for the Core that looked at the history of life from a chemical, astronomical and geological perspective. But when Natural Sciences 101 became available last year, Humayun took it on and adapted it to his special perspective.

    "I teach about where the elements come from, why solar systems are made of the stuff they are, why carbon is a rare element on planets and how a planet gets its atmosphere and oceans," he said.

    He also demonstrates to his students the famous Miller-Urey experiment, which was first performed 50 years ago by Stanley Miller, then a graduate student in Chemistry at Chicago, and Nobel Laureate Harold Urey.

    In this classic experiment, ammonia, methane and water vapor are injected into an enclosed glass container to simulate Earth's early atmosphere. Then electrical sparks are passed through the container to simulate lightning.

    "They [Miller and Urey] were able to form amino acids, and since amino acids are building blocks of proteins, they realized they could assemble the molecules they needed to make life," Humayun explained.

    Humayun successfully ran the experiment for all six of the Natural Sciences laboratory sections in which he and his students found that organics had formed in the glass container within two or three hours.

    "It's pretty spectacular in its own way to watch the lightning bolt turn a clear, colorless gas/water mixture into an amber liquid," he said. "While the experiment runs, I show a video on the origin of life, presenting alternative explanations, including formation of life in the deep-sea hot springs."

    Humayun's Chemistry of the Earth class offers more opportunity for one-on-one interactions. In this course, Humayun applies principles of chemistry to teach undergraduates how elements get incorporated into the Earth. He shows students how scientists can use those elements to trace the evolution of major processes, such as plate tectonics, the movement of Earth's crustal plates.

    In his laboratory, he has mentored four undergraduate students, including Ellen Currano, who has worked with him for three years. Currano, a fourth-year, Geophysical Sciences concentrator, will graduate in June with honors.

    Currano spent four weeks during the Fall Quarter of 2001 collecting 3.5-million-year-old mammalian bones from Tanzania's Laetoli fossil beds via the Associated Colleges of the Midwest study abroad program.

    "She picked up a project to look at trace elements in the soil and how fast they enter the bones. It's a process called diagenesis that transforms a bone into a fossil," Humayun said. "This is of enormous interest to people who care about what gets preserved in the final fossilization of a mammalian bone."

    Currano is traveling what is becoming a well-worn path in Humayun's lab. She will be the fourth student to complete an honors thesis based on data collected in his lab.

    "I have been very impressed with our undergraduate students in terms of their capabilities and the potential that they have realized in the lab," he said.