enjoying the Space Zone action!
University of Nottingham, University College London
Maths BSc, Planetary Science MSc (A-levels: Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry)
PhD student in Physics & Astronomy
University of Leicester
Favourite thing to do in my job: Discover something new about samples from outer space which changes our understanding of our Solar System.
I am studying rocks from Mars and grains from a comet using microscopes and light brighter than the sun, to help understand what they are made of and how they formed in the early Solar System.
My PhD is very multi-disciplinary, using a wide range of subjects, from mineralogy (geology and chemistry) to understand what my samples are made of, to thermodynamics (physics) to understand the reactions that could have formed those minerals, and then dynamics (physics) and mathematical modelling to determine what we can say about the impact events that took place in order for the minerals in the meteorite to have formed. I’ve also learnt to program and use this to help process my data quickly and efficiently.
Microscope images of the martian meteorite I am studying
I have a great supervisory team so can access experts, lectures and study material for everything I need and I will be doing some lab work at the University of Manchester with special equipment they have in order to determine the age of different parts of my meteorite.
The comet grains are on loan from NASA who obtained them with their Stardust mission, which flew by comet Wild2 in 2004 and returned the samples trapped in its detector to Earth in 2006. Our collaborators at the University of Kent are currently carrying out some work on these before we take them to the Diamond Synchrotron in December.
I’m also really interested in the whole process by which meteorites arrive on Earth. Jupiter’s gravity disturbs asteroids in the asteroid belt; these sometimes then travel towards Mars or the Earth, resulting in an impact, sometimes forming an impact crater if the piece of the asteroid is large enough. In the case of Mars, the force of the impact can eject rocks from Mars into space, which then subsequently land on Earth. Identifying and studying these impact craters helps us understand what happened.
My Typical Day
I use microscopes, interpret data, keep up to date by reading the latest research papers, with plenty of coffee breaks, discussions with supervisors and other colleagues.
I vary between spending time in the lab collecting data, and then back at my desk trying to understand it! I have used standard microscopes, but I mainly use the scanning electron microscope (SEM). A normal microscope uses light and can only magnify by ~1000x, whereas the SEM uses electrons enabling us to see more than ~100,000x, far greater detail. It also allows me to examine what minerals the sample is made of.
We have allocated beam time in December at the national Diamond Synchrotron facility which acts as a giant microscope, accelerating electrons to near the speed of light which provides an X-ray beam enabling us to see individual atoms in our samples. In order to use this facility, you have to write a proposal explaining why you need to use Diamond and the benefits of the science you hope to achieve (this was done by my supervisor but I hope to help with the process in the future).
For reading I have great variety; on meteorites, Mars and comets, and then specific technical physics, maths and geology, and there are always new research papers being published in my field with fascinating new results. Scientists visit to give seminars in the department, and coffee breaks and lunch breaks are encouraged, often breeding conversations that produce new ideas to investigate. There is opportunity to present my work at scientific conferences and workshops each year, sometimes internationally, which provides great motivation to work to sub-deadlines within the 3 year PhD timeframe. I am also gaining teaching experience with undergraduate seminars.
Right: My first visit to the Diamond synchrotron facility, near Oxford
What I'd do with the prize money
Buy inexpensive meteorites to be shown and handed round at schools and at science fairs
At the Big Bang Fair in London last year we used meteorite kits, which consisted of unusual earth rocks mixed with meteorites. The challenge was to identify them, with help from our team running the stand. I would love to be able to bring some of these to the schools participating in I’m a Scientist, though they could also be loaned out to schools with instructions or I can help you find a nearby expert if my travel is prohibitive.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Optimistic, energetic and determined
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Exploring the 1.8 billion year old Sudbury impact basin in Ontario, Canada
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
The vast night sky, my father, the final space shuttle launch
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Occasionally for not paying attention
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Visited the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida & seen the space shuttle launch
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
To live in good health to age 200; to be involved in analysing the first samples returned from Mars by a spacecraft mission; to see results from a mission to the icy giant planets (Uranus or Neptune).
Tell us a joke.
What is an astronauts favorite key on the keyboard? The space bar!