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Harvard Radcliffe Institute Honors Astrophysics Senior with Highest Distinction

The Harvard Radcliffe Institute has awarded the Captain Jonathan Fay Prize to Alessandra Canta, one of three graduating seniors at Harvard whose theses reflect the most insightful, original research and creative work among the Class of 2021.

Alessandra Canta, Harvard College Class of 2021

Photo courtesy of Alessandra Canta

Astrophysics senior Alessandra Canta is one of three Harvard students selected by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study to receive the 2021 Captain Jonathan Fay Prize. The winners were selected from among 74 Harvard College seniors who were awarded the Thomas Temple Hoopes Prize by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences this year.

Hoopes Prize recipients are recognized for their exceptional undergraduate projects. The work of the Fay Prize winners are drawn from this group and are, in the opinion of a selection committee made up of senior Harvard Faculty members, the most outstanding imaginative works or pieces of original research in any field.

In previous years, the prize has been awarded at a gathering cohosted by the Institute and Harvard College. This year—for the second time in the prize's history—students remain scattered because of the coronavirus pandemic, so Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of Harvard Radcliffe Institute and the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, reached out to each winner to deliver the news and her congratulations.

"Alessandra Canta, Frances Hisgen, and Sally O'Keeffe show tremendous insight, creativity, and scholarly rigor in their theses,” says Dean Brown-Nagin. "Although Radcliffe no longer confers undergraduate degrees, the Institute remains committed to supporting excellence in undergraduate scholarship. I will add that it is especially notable and welcome to see three young women receive this high honor. Radcliffe College's legacy is alive and well." Canta, a joint concentrator in chemistry and astrophysics, was honored for "Unlocking the Key to Life: Observation and Formation of Nitriles in Protoplanetary Disks."

Canta's thesis discussed how the chemical composition of protoplanetary disks around young stars affects the chemical habitability of planets and whether the planets can host life. Nitriles are key for chemical reactions that lead to the formation of molecules such as RNA and amino acids. Canta’s thesis suggests a hidden reservoir of nitriles that was previously unknown and expands our understanding of the formation of Carbon-Nitrogen bonds during planet formation, potentially shedding new light on the origins of life.

Karin Öberg, a professor of astronomy who also serves as the director of undergraduate studies in the astronomy department, says of Canta’s thesis, "I have never before seen an undergraduate contributing at this high level to the field of astrochemistry." The discussion portion of Canta's thesis "reveals a deep and penetrating mind with a very unusual command of the literature."