Rachel Smith

Head, Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Lab and Curator, Meteorites

11 West Jones Street, Raleigh, NC 27601


  • Ph.D. in Cosmochemistry/Astrochemistry (officially, Geochemistry), University of California Los Angeles, 2011
  • M.S. in Cosmochemistry/Astrochemistry (officially, Geochemistry), University of California Los Angeles, 2009
  • D.V.M., Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine, 1998
  • B.S., Cornell University, 1995


  • Assistant Professor, Department of Physics & Astronomy, Appalachian State University
  • Visiting Scholar, Department of Physics and Astronomy, UNC at Chapel Hill
  • (Past) Postdoctoral Scholar, Astronomy/Astrochemistry/Planetary Science, Blake Research Group, California Institute of Technology, 2011

Research Interests

  • Early solar system chemistry
  • Chemistry of forming planetary systems in the Galaxy
  • Solar system evolution and planet formation
  • Life in the Universe
  • Origin of life on Earth

Dr. Rachel Smith is the Director of the Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Lab, and Curator of Meteorites at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, and is jointly appointed as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Appalachian State University. Dr. Smith is an observational astronomer interested in answering fundamental questions on how our solar system and other planetary systems form and evolve over time. Dr. Smith uses the largest ground-based optical-infrared telescopes, including the 10-meter Keck Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, to investigate detailed chemistry hidden in the gas surrounding forming stars across the Galaxy. She uses high-resolution spectroscopic techniques on the Keck I telescope to determine precise abundances in the isotopes of carbon and oxygen in carbon monoxide gas (CO, the same molecule in car exhaust). This gas is plentiful surrounding forming stars (often called young stellar objects, or protostars) that are analogues to our proto-Sun roughly 4.56 billion years ago. Data from these observations can be compared to meteorites and the Sun – together, the oldest material we have from the early solar system -- in order to understand the early chemical pathways fundamental toward building planets and eventually, life. Dr. Smith is currently analyzing data from protostars much more massive than the Sun in order to learn more about how star and planet formation may vary in different environments across the Galaxy.

Dr. Smith collaborates with scientists at the California Institute of Technology, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Space Telescope Science Institute, NASA Ames, and the American Museum of Natural History.

Dr. Smith is also responsible for curating the museum’s meteorite collection. She is currently working on building the collection and is guiding student and projects in studying the meteorites in thin section. Further, she is working with colleagues using computed tomography imaging techniques for evaluating specimens.

Dr. Smith’s current Appalachian State University undergraduate courses, Astrobiology, and Star Formation, help introduce many of the fundamental concepts that are at the core of astrophysics and her research. Dr. Smith’s goal is to bring the excitement of her field and key scientific questions and methods to keen undergraduates, many of which continue on to work in the AARL on ongoing research and outreach projects. When not doing research, teaching, or outreach for the museum and greater community, Dr. Smith enjoys writing popular articles for local newspapers and magazines, as well as blogging on various topical subjects in astronomy, astrophysics, and astrobiology.

  • Courses Taught at Applician State University:
  • Astrobiology: Searching for Life in the Universe (Spring 2013, 2014, 2015)
  • Star Formation (Fall 2014, 2015)

Peer-Reviewed Publications

  • Smith R. L., Pontoppidan K. M., Young E. D. and Morris M. R. Heterogeneity in 12CO/13CO abundance ratios toward solar-type young stellar objects. The Astrophysical Journal, in final revision.
  • Young E. D., Gounelle M., Smith R. L., Pontoppidan K. M., and Morris M. R., (2011). Astronomical oxygen isotopic evidence for supernova enrichment of the solar system birth environment by propagating star formation. The Astrophysical Journal 729, 43.
  • Smith R. L., Pontoppidan K. M., Young E. D., Morris M. R. and van Dishoeck E. F. (2009) High-precision C17O, C18O and C16O measurements in young stellar objects: analogues for CO self- shielding in the early solar system. The Astrophysical Journal 701, 163-175.

Selected Published Proceedings

  • Smith, R.L., Blake, G. A., Boogert, A.C.A., Pontoppidan, K. M., Lockwood, A. C. (2015) Investigating Molecular Inheritance of Carbon in Star-forming Regions along a Galactic Gradient, International Astronomical Union General Assembly, Honolulu, Hawaii, Aug. 2015 (poster contribution).
  • Smith, R.L., Blake, G. A., Boogert, A.C.A., Pontoppidan, K. M., Lockwood, A. C. (2014). Investigating Protostellar Carbon Reservoirs with High-Resolution Spectroscopy Toward Massive Young Stellar Objects. 77th Meteoritical Society Meeting, Casablanca, Morocco, LPI, No. 1800, p. 5435 (oral contribution).
  • Smith, R.L., Blake, G. A., Boogert, A.C.A., Pontoppidan, K. M., Lockwood, A. C. (2014). New observations of CO isotopologues toward massive protostars: an expanded view of molecular reservoirs in the galaxy. 45th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, The Woodlands, TX, LPI, No. 1777, p. 2563 (oral contribution).
  • Smith, R.L., Pontoppidan, K. M., Blake, G. A., Lockwood, A. C., 2013. Observations of carbon and oxygen isotopic heterogeneity toward protostars ranging in morphology and parent cloud. 44th LPSC, LPI Contribution No.1719, p. 2698 (oral contribution).
  • Smith, R. L., Pontoppidan, K. M., Young, E. D., and Morris, M. R., 2011. Observational signatures of carbon isotope ice-gas fractionation towards solar-type Protostars. Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) Contribution 1608, 1281.

Rachel's Posts at the Research and Collections Blog
Curriculum Vitae


  • Meteorites

Fields of Research