PostDoc Researcher, Lunar Volatiles, Nicci Potts @nicci_potts: A Day in the GeoLife Series


Meeting a T-rex at the Houston Natural History Museum. Photo copyright: Nicci Potts

NAME: Nicci Potts

CURRENT TITLE:  Postdoctoral Researcher

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Experimental petrology, volatile elements, planetary interiors, lunar volatiles, lunar petrology.

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE:  7 years experience [I spent a year as a research assistant during my MSc, 2 years MSc, 4 years PhD, 1 years post-doctoral research assistant (PDRA)]

EDUCATION:  BSc Geological Sciences; MSc Geochemistry; PhD Experimental Petrology/Lunar Volatile


What’s your job like?

My job is incredibly varied which is one of the reasons I love it so much! My research is focused on how volatile elements squeeze themselves into minerals, so thinking very much on the atomic scale and using thermodynamics to understand what can impact elements squishing themselves into stuff. To achieve this, I use experimental petrology methods which is very hands-on and involves making capsules with a variety of tools. Then if something goes wrong, I have to get really dirty fixing hydraulic lines or tracing electrical lines! As volatile elements are very volatile, they can be tricky to measure. I’m lucky to work at an institute with a great ion microprobe set-up. I can get high precision and high accuracy measurements by balancing instrument conditions (beam size, current, beam shape, etc.), so again back to thinking of how to optimise counts of individual ions. On top of this, I spend time reading papers about new research in my field (and out of my field!), writing papers myself, travelling to meetings to discuss research, and thinking up new ideas. I also help out students in the lab with their research and do a little bit of teaching.

What’s a typical day like?

There really is no typical day! I generally go straight into the lab and check on experiments that have been running overnight — or I might be putting an experiment on which means I will be making capsules, setting the piston cylinders up, and then starting an experiment which can take a good few hours. I help out students a lot with their projects so I might be showing someone how to work an instrument or how to make something. When my experiments are up and running, I will work on manuscripts, read papers, respond to emails, or maybe do some computer modelling. If I’m analyzing my samples, then I will be locked away in a dark room for days on end hoping to get good results.


The two piston cylinder assemblies at School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh. These beauties allow me to reach temperatures up to 1600 degrees C and pressures up to 5 GPa and are where I do the majority of my experiments. As they have their own personalities and ‘quirks,’ we obviously had to give them names — on the left is Roxanne (the Police song Red Light must be played when putting an experiment on for good luck!), and on the right is Big Greenie (no prizes for guessing where our inspiration came from!). Photo copyright: Nicci Potts

What’s fun?

Honestly, everything! I really love my field of science. Our understanding of planetary interiors and mineral physics is constantly expanding, and it is great to be a part of this! I’m a very hands-on person, so I really enjoy the physical aspects of my job. I’m proud of my ever-expanding skill repertoire, and I feel that I thrive when a new technical challenge is thrown my way! I also love thermodynamics. It blows my mind that simple things can change a crystal structure which in turn can impact an entire planet’s make up! Getting to combine all the different aspects in my job is great for me. If I was at my computer modelling all the time I think I would find it difficult to sit still for so long!

moon rock

Nicci Potts holding a rock collected from the moon during the Apollo missions. This was when I got a special behind-the-scenes tour of the Apollo sample vault (one of the best days of my life!). The bunny suit is to protect the samples from any terrestrial dust contaminating samples. Photo copyright: Nicci Potts

What’s challenging?

Finding time! There is so much I would like to do and try, but I have to balance lab work with writing papers so that everyone else gets to see my cool results! Set backs can also be difficult or if an experiment fails it can be upsetting as so much effort goes into each one.

What’s your advice to students?

I didn’t follow a straight path from BSc – MSc – PhD, and I would say to any student who is thinking of taking time out to travel or live abroad (as I did) to just go for it! I definitely feel that after my time abroad I came into my PhD at a mature position ready to take on the world (of science!). Also, don’t worry if you don’t have a clear plan. Find something you love and follow it where it takes you!

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