Researcher, Planetary Sciences, Louise Alexander @LouiseEAlex: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME:  Louise Alexander

CURRENT TITLE:  Post Doctoral Researcher

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Planetary sciences; lunar basalt

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE:  Since June 2015, Post Doctoral Researcher at Birkbeck, University of London, United Kingdom; based in University College London (UCL)/Birkbeck Centre for Planetary Sciences; looking at lunar samples. Funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

EDUCATION:  PhD in Planetary Science (Birkbeck, 2015) studying lunar basalts; BSc Earth and Planetary Sciences.


What’s your job like?

I genuinely love my job. The samples I work with were brought all the way from the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, so it always feels like a great privilege to be able to work with them. This is my first post-doctoral position. Continuing on from my PhD work on lunar basalts, I am working on an exciting new project looking at cosmogenic isotopes in lunar samples to assess what they can tell us about the history of the galaxy. To do this, I need to measure the abundances of cosmogenic nuclei which are produced through the interaction of Galactic Cosmic Rays with atoms in lunar materials and are therefore present in lunar meteorites and Apollo samples. The samples I have are very small [~2 millimeters (mm)], so we need to make the most of the material which requires careful consideration. The project is still in its early stages, and I am researching and testing methods for analysing the samples and collecting comparative data.

Apollo basalt

Apollo basalt sample (2 mm) for analysis. ©NASA/JSC

lunar basalt

Pre-processed fines available for analysis. ©2016 Louise Alexander

What’s a typical day like?

I think many people on this blog series have said that there is no typical day and that is very true. There are days when I am reading papers and writing (lots of those) and working with endless spreadsheets. Then there are days when I am preparing samples or using different equipment such as a microprobe, scanning electron microscope (SEM) and mass spectrometer to analyze them. The new project I am working on mainly involves using a mass spectrometer to analyse isotopes of helium, argon, and neon. It has been a steep learning curve understanding how it all works and how to interpret the results.


Microprobe used for chemical analysis. ©2016 Louise Alexander


Thin section in cross-polarized light of lunar sample 12005, a low titanium (low-Ti) basalt. Field of view (FOV) = 4.4 mm ©2016 Louise Alexander

I am based in the Centre for Planetary Sciences at UCL/Birkbeck with other researchers and PhD students who are all looking at different aspects of planetary science.  So, it is a really exciting place to be, and we all learn a lot from each other. It is a supportive and friendly working environment, and we have open days and events too where we show the public around and showcase some of the recent research.

What’s fun?

I love the outreach activities. Showing children a meteorite for the first time is always a really special thing.  I always like talking to people who are genuinely interested in what I do because it reminds me of how exciting it is. There are lots of conferences and meetings too. The lunar science community is very close, and it is great when everyone gets together to present their work and exchange ideas.

Because I work with lunar samples, there are no field trips! However, I have had the opportunity to help on undergraduate field trips which have been a lot of fun. It has been really great going to volcanic areas, because it helps me to put the samples I am looking at into context, even if they are very different chemically.


Louise Alexander examining basalt textures in Hawaii. ©2016 Louise Alexander

What’s challenging?

Anyone who analyses samples will tell you how horrible it is when equipment breaks down, and I don’t know anyone who has managed to escape that. Trying to get time on machines is stressful too. So, there is nothing as devastating as the first time you get in nice and early on a Friday with a whole weekend of data collection ahead to find that something has gone horribly wrong and you can’t do anything. It’s a right of passage I think, so in the end you always have a back up plan…. even if it’s just to go home, have a hot bath and forget all about it for a while.

What’s your advice to students?

Enjoy it! Make the most of every opportunity that comes your way.

I was a single parent at 18 and didn’t have the opportunity to go to University until much later in life. I wish I could go back and tell myself that I would get there in the end. There are lots of people in similar positions who are made to feel that they can’t follow their dreams or achieve the things they want to. I would say don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. If you really want to do it, just keep going, because you can get there.


Louise Alexander with undergraduates on a field trip in Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands. ©2016 Louise Alexander

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