SCIEX Microscale Separations Innovation Medal Awardee 2021 | Peter Willis

The recipient of the Microscale Separations Innovation Medal 2021 is Dr. Peter Willis, Group Supervisor, Chemical Analysis & Life Detection, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, USA.

Peter Willis received his doctorate in chemistry from Cornell University, after designing and building a one-ton crossed molecular beams machine that he used to probe the fundamental nature of interactions between metal atoms and organic molecules. He continued his studies through postdoctoral fellowships at Rice University and Caltech, where he expanded his scientific horizons beyond spectroscopy and chemical reaction dynamics, and into the fields of carbon nanotechnology, molecular computing, systems biology, and biosensing. In recognition of his pioneering work on carbon fullerenes with Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley, on January 1st, 2000 he was highlighted by Maclean’s magazine as one of the “100 Canadians to Watch in the New Millennium”. Two years later, drawn by the inescapable pull of the search for life beyond Earth, he joined the technical staff of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Dr. Willis is currently the Group Supervisor of JPL’s Chemical Analysis and Life Detection group. His research focuses on invention of new methods and technologies capable of identifying and characterizing signatures of extraterrestrial life at the molecular level. Portable instrument systems developed in his group are validated in a variety of harsh terrestrial environments that range from high deserts and hypersaline lakes, to oceans and icy polar regions. The ultimate goal is to incorporate this technology into the payloads of robotic explorers bound for the ocean worlds of our outer solar system. To that end he has played a key role in the formulation of a variety of mission concepts to explore Titan, Enceladus, and Europa. In 2017 he co-authored the “Europa Lander Mission Science Definition Team Report”, a publication which broadly serves as a guide to life detection for all future planetary missions in our solar system. In addition to laying the foundation for these missions of the coming decades, Dr. Willis also currently serves as staff scientist for the ongoing Perseverance Mars rover mission. His primary focus is on the use of chemical and mineralogical analysis to enable the selection of the most astrobiologically promising samples for potential return to Earth for analysis in terrestrial laboratories. And finally, Dr. Willis also has a strong commitment to academics, serving as Adjunct Professor in the Department of Chemistry at University of Kansas. He is a frequent reviewer for a wide range of chemistry-related scientific journals and has mentored over 40 individuals at the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral levels during the course of his research.