NAME: Adrienne MacArtney
CURRENT TITLE: PhD researcher on ‘crust-atmosphere coupling and carbon sequestration on early Mars’ at the University of Glasgow. In normal vernacular, this is understanding how Mars lost some of its early atmosphere into the rocks, and how understanding this process might help us tackle climate change on Earth.
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Mineralogy, microscopy, geochemistry and engineering.
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 7
EDUCATION: I started my undergraduate BSc geosciences at the Open University when I was 28 years old. I was half way through a MSc in Earth Science when I was offered the United Kingdom (UK) Space Agency PhD at Glasgow.
What’s your job like?
I never really see what I do as a job, more as being paid to intellectually explore… play. My PhD is split into three very different areas:
- Mars carbonates. I look at Mars meteorites, particularly at weathered veins in the rock where water on ancient Mars has changed the original rock into a variety of secondary altered minerals. The prime interest is in finding carbonate minerals. Carbonates form when atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolves in water, forming a carbonic acid, which reacts with silicate rocks and forms stable carbonate minerals, locking away carbon dioxide for many millions/billions of years. At least some of the ancient Mars atmosphere was lost this way. I also look at terrestrial carbonates, comparing their similarities and differences with Mars carbonates. If we find similar carbonates on Earth, it is possible the hydrology and environmental conditions were also similar.
- Geochemical experiments. I work alongside the British Geological Survey conducting mineral experiments at high pressure and temperatures. We put rock samples similar to Mars into steel chambers with water in them. By varying the gas composition and starting minerals in each chamber, we find that different weathering and altered mineral products form. We can then compare these to samples from early Mars, and the similarities or differences can inform us as to what the early conditions of Mars may have been like.
- Rover tool engineering. I work with Space Glasgow and the Ultrasonic Planetary Drilling team to redesign Mars rover tools. I am working on a prototype to potentially replace the rock abrasion tool (RAT) that grinds through the weathered surface of rocks to expose their pristine interior. Currently this takes a few hours, consumes 11 Watts and uses diamond resin rotary grinding. We are using ultrasonics instead that takes minutes, uses only a few Watts and produces a smoother finish.
At the risk of making a cliché comment, there isn’t really a standard day. It is better viewing it as a dynamic project that evolves in stages. Months of reading academic articles in libraries and coffee shops to understand the background science, can be followed by weeks on high power microscopes. A long stint on geochemical modelling packages might be followed by an international conference somewhere exotic. One day you are firing lasers in a noisy engineering workshop, the next day writing with a cat on the lap. I like the variation.
I love so many things about my research! I like capturing the artistry in hard science and the pleasure when an eight-hour map on a scanning electron microscope comes out looking like it should be framed in a gallery. I like taking difficult subjects and translating them into a format the general public can engage and question. My field trips have been wonderful, exploring remote islands off the Norwegian coast in winter by myself, or sailing out to tiny Icelandic communities, all in the name of geology sample collection! I feel that the subject I study is important. It matters.
What’s challenging?: I generally work six to seven days a week, and long days with few holidays. Burn out can be a real risk that needs managing. I knit, write general media articles, collect old books, and have a cat and a hedgehog. All of these help prevent exhaustion.
The chemistry and mathematics of what I do is hard and often intimidating. I was never wonderful with these subjects in high school and find it ironic that I now tinker on complex geochemical experiments and modelling packages. It puts a pressure on me to read up on areas where I am weak in my ‘free time.’
I am uncomfortable with the financial instability of being a final year PhD student with no fixed contract or secured place to move onto. The insecurity can be a gnawing distraction at times.
What’s your advice to students?
Be critical and independent. This is a radical act. Be humble enough to stand corrected when you are wrong. Learn from people. Pick fights and hold your ground if you trust your data, even if it comes with a cost. Break the ivory tower. Science is not isolated from politics, power, and economics. Engage with people. If your science is funded by the tax payer, you have an obligation to reach out, communicate and explain what you are doing, and why, to the tax payer. But most importantly, don’t feel you need to be a certain way, or become a certain type of person, to do well in academia. Fiercely be yourself.