Graduate Student, Microscopic Deformation, Stephanie Mills @MicroEarthSci: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Stephanie Mills

Stephanie Mills, Graduate Student and UMaine School of Earth & Climate Science’s scanning electron microscope (and her #scishirt Mind/Matter). Photo copyright: Stephanie Mills

NAME: Stephanie Mills

CURRENT TITLE: Graduate Student in Earth Science

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Microstructure and deformation of rocks and glaciers


EDUCATION: BS in Physics/Chemistry Education from Cedarville University. I will have an MS in Earth Science from the University of Maine in a couple months (yay!!), and I’m currently working on a PhD at UMaine.

WEBSITE: http://Twitter@MicroEarthSci

What’s your job like?

My graduate career is to address the overarching question, “What do microscopic features tell us about large-scale deformation?” I focused on rocks and mountain building events for my Master’s and am now working on ice and flow of glaciers for my PhD.

In my first year, everything was new! I had focused on chemistry, physics, and education in my undergraduate work, so when I started as a field assistant in Georgian Bay, Ontario, I was just amazed and found myself saying, “Oh, so these are rocks!” During my second and third year, I’ve been a teaching assistant for different earth science courses. Last year, I started a project on glacial ice, and I even had the opportunity to collect ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet which I will look at in our scanning electron microscope. Next year, I will be primarily teaching high school while I continue to work on my PhD, because someday, I would like to be a liaison between high schools and colleges in order to get more students involved in research.

Georgian Bay

Georgian Bay, Ontario, where Stephanie did field work for two summers and discovered what rocks were. Photo copyright: Stephanie Mills

What’s a typical day like?

Just like every year is different, every day is different! I have 4 basic tasks that I juggle between:

1. Microscope time! I have taken thousands of images of rocks with a cathodoluminescence detector (so pretty!), and now I am spending a lot of time tweaking our cooling system on the scanning electron microscope so that we can better analyze ice in it.


Cathodoluminescence image of quartz (center, with all the dark lines & blobs in it) and plagioclase. Photo copyright: Stephanie Mills

2. Data analysis time! After collecting lots of data, whether on our microscope or someone else’s different kind of microscope, my time involves making lots of plots…and remaking plots…and remaking plots.

3. Reading and writing time! In school, we get this idea that all the subject areas are separate, but they’re not. Over half my time is spent reading articles and putting together reports or writing my own publications.

4. Teaching time! As a teaching assistant, most of my time was spent grading, but I also tutored students and worked with the professors to improve the course.

What’s fun?

Teaching is most rewarding for me, which is why I’m pursuing that as my ultimate career. But research is lots of fun too, and why I want to get more young students involved! I find tiny things fascinating, so microscope time is my favorite part of research.

“Things under the microscope are really beautiful, so it’s like going to nature’s art gallery every day.”

What’s challenging?

As a graduate student, it’s my job to figure things out. There’s a lot of unspoken expectations. My project didn’t have a clear answer or obvious path to get to that answer. I have to figure out how to do things that no one else in the department knows how to do. It’s frustrating sometimes, but that’s also part of what makes graduate school/research exciting.

What’s your advice to students?

Take initiative to learn about things outside the box of a basic curriculum and network to find out about careers you don’t see on television. I wasn’t able to really figure out my exact interests until coming to graduate school. I identify myself as an educator, but I want to make connections between high schools and colleges, which is not something every educator does. As a researcher, I’d call myself a crystalline Earth materials scientist, which isn’t in any catalog book. Keep exploring!

ice microstructure

A glacier flows from the Greenland Ice Sheet; Per Stephanie, “I want to look at how microstructure (optical image, cross-polars) affects this flow.” Photo copyright: Stephanie Mills

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