Jill McDermott

good_morning_Jill_sm_137153How did life on Earth begin? It is one of the biggest questions that scientists are still asking. ESWN member Jill McDermott is one of the scientists asking that question. Jill, along with her colleagues, Eoghan Reeves and Jeff Seewald, are the first to test a fundamental assumption of the ‘metabolism first’ hypothesis, and found that it may not have been as easy as previously assumed. Instead, their findings could provide a focus for the search for life on other planets. The work is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The work suggested that a molecule scientists previously thought could have been a precursor for life – methanethiol – only exists as a result of life. That doesn’t mean life didn’t originate at hydrothermal vents, says McDermott. It just didn’t happen the way people had been thinking, which is interesting. It also means methanethiol could be used to sniff out life anywhere in the universe – an exciting byproduct of what could be seen as a disappointing result.

A native of Maine and graduate of Maine School of Science and Mathematics, Jill decided as a teenager to pursue chemistry in part because it pushed her and challenged her. Following high school, Jill went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry at Dartmouth College and a Master of Science in Earth Sciences from the University of New Hampshire. Jill is currently a PhD student in Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry in the joint program between Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and MIT, where she is expected to finish her PhD in 2014.

Jill’s passion for science was nurtured at an early age by her parents who encouraged her to play outside with her two brothers and enjoy nature. Her father is a chemist at a paper plant and her mother is a science teacher. Jill says that her decision to pursue chemistry was fueled by her interest in the natural world and the source of pride she got from chemistry because chemistry was hard and challenged her. Jill also credits her path to her MS on her seeing a picture of her MS advisor Dr. Karen Von Damn holding a picture of a rock on a beach and laughing. Jill says that the picture made her think “She looks really interesting.” Jill emailed Dr. Von Damn, and one week after graduating college, Jill was on her first scientific cruise with Dr. Von Damn.

Jill’s work has taken her around the world not just on scientific cruises but also on radio waves. An interview of Jill, on NPR, can be listened to here. Read more about Jill’s work here.


The research team, from right to left, co-authors Eoghan Reeves, Jill McDermott, and Jeff Seewald and their WHOI colleagues Frieder Klein and Sean Sylva used isobaric gas-tight samplers (IGTs) to collect and analyze samples of hydrothermal vent fluids (Jason pilot Scott Hansen peeks out from the background) on a cruise to the Cayman Trough in 2012. Seewald developed the samplers to collect fluids, some exceeding 700°F, and return them to the surface under pressure to preserve their physical and chemical composition. (Julie Huber, copyright Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Jill photo