Martian Meteorite Project, Nicola Mari: GeoProject Series

planetary science

Nicola Mari, PhD Researcher in Planetary Science. Photo Copyright: Nicola Mari

NAME: Nicola Mari

BACKGROUND: I’m an unusual guy that does research about unusual things. I like astronomy and geology and am actually doing a Ph.D. in Martian Geology in the United Kingdom (UK), analyzing Martian meteorites. During my life, I have acted like a “modern Indiana Jones,” having a great and continuous spirit of adventure and exploration of remote places where I could find some interesting and peculiar geological samples or, if I’m lucky, a new piece of extraterrestrial material that can easily reveal processes in the cosmos. My other hobbies are filmmaking and gaming/game development.

PROJECT TITLE: “The formation and evolution of the Martian mantle: a Martian meteorite perspective”

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Planetary Geology, Martian Geology, Volcanology, Magmatology, Geochemistry, Cosmochemistry, Exoplanets

TIMELINE: 3 years

LOCATION: University of Glasgow (UK)



What’s the purpose of your project?

I do research on the formation and evolution of Mars, in particular of its mantle. In order to do this, I actually analyze real pieces that came from Mars, basically Martian meteorites. These samples represent basaltic lava erupted on Mars which can give me a large amount of information regarding the Martian mantle (for example, its chemistry and thermodynamics). Constraining the formation and evolution of this small red planet can give me precious information about how these types of terrestrial planets form and evolve in the Solar System and in exoplanetary systems.

How are you setting up and testing your project?

Initially, I need the actual Martian samples which are not easy to obtain. In order to obtain mine, I use the Martian material in collaboration with NASA and national museums. Then, in order to obtain information on the Martian mantle, I divide my project into four different parts: (1) extrapolating the temperature of the Martian mantle by analyzing and using olivines as special geothermometers; (2) revealing how many chemically different mantle reservoirs are present on Mars and the actual composition of the mantle by analyzing osmium isotopes and highly siderophile elements in Martian lava flows; (3) by finding the oxygen fugacity (oxydation state) of the Martian mantle with experimental petrology methods; and (4) by constraining the amount of volatiles (H2O, Cl, F) in the mantle with chemical analysis of amphiboles in Martian meteorites, and potentially trying to infer from where the water present in the Martian interior came from in the Solar System.


Column chemistry, Nicola Mari, Planetary Science Researcher. Photo Copyright: Nicola Mari

Any results yet?

Until now I may have potentially found the temperature of the Martian mantle during the Late Amazonian (around 500 million years ago) – I just need to check that all the results are okay. Also, I’m in the process of acquiring isotope data, and for now, I’m seeing that the Martian mantle seems to be more chemically differentiated than previously thought!
Further exciting discoveries coming soon…

What has been the most interesting/challenging (include lessons learned)?

Until now the most challenging situation was the phase of acquiring osmium isotope data. This was the first time I worked with wet chemistry. Also, all the processes of chemical extraction (it takes around 3 weeks) was very hard and dangerous (I risked to lose extremely precious pieces of Mars every second!). But it was also very nice: I crushed pieces of Mars for science!

How will this project help society?

I think that the future of mankind will be split between Earth and Mars. If we don’t study this small red planet starting now, it will be impossible to live there one day. And Mars is only the first step.

planetary science

Nicola Mari, PhD Researcher in Planetary Science

Geoscience Educator, Dr. Sian Proctor @psyan: A Day in the GeoLife Series


Dr. Sian Proctor at Arches National Park

NAME: Dr. Sian Proctor

CURRENT TITLE: Geoscience Faculty

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Geologic disasters and the environment, curriculum and instruction, and science communication.

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: For the past 17 years, I have been teaching geology at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona

EDUCATION: I have a B.S. in Environmental Science, an M.S. in Geology, and a Ph.D. in Science Education. Both my master and doctoral research involved the use of technology to understand how individuals learn.



What’s your job like?

I am the only full-time geoscience instructor at my college.  It is my responsibility to develop and manage the geoscience department. I teach classes such as physical geology, historical geology, geologic disasters, introduction to planetary science, sustainable cities, and sustainable world. I make sure my adjunct faculty have the resources they need to be successful instructors. I am also the college’s faculty developer, sustainability coordinator, and serve on committees both on campus and within our district.

What’s a typical day like?

My day usually begins with checking my email to see if my students need anything. I have been teaching fully online for the past few years, and although I miss being in the classroom, I love the challenge of creating good online curriculum. I spend a portion of my day grading assignments which can be boring, but I also get to work on developing fun and engaging activities for my students. I have adjunct faculty who teach face-to-face classes, and it is important that I check in with them to make sure everything is running smoothly and that they have everything they need.

I spend a portion of my day working in our Center for Teaching and Learning. As the faculty developer, it is my job to provide professional growth opportunities for our faculty. This year, I am working on building the community on campus by running events that allow faculty and staff to interact in more personal/meaningful ways. I also host Lunch and Learn discussions for faculty that cover a wide variety of topics such as creativity, assessment, engagement, and gamification.

I am the sustainability coordinator for my campus. This requires me to work with our administration, faculty, and facilities staff on projects that help our campus become more sustainable over time. I am currently working on a grant to assess our student’s resiliency to heat-related incidences. Phoenix gets really hot during the summer. It is important that our campus and surrounding community have an emergency plan for when hazards occur.

I work with students in a variety of ways. I am the STEMS Club (Science+Technology+Engineering+Mathematics=Sustainability) advisor. This year, we are working on creating an interactive outdoor learning environment called the GeoWall Botanical Garden. I help the students complete STEM-related design projects to be used or displayed in the garden.

What’s fun?

One of the best parts about my job is all the professional growth activities I get to do. I only teach 9-months of the year, so every summer I get to travel and participate in unique learning experiences. I have done faculty exchanges to Australia, China, and the Netherlands. I have done research projects on Easter Island. I was a PolarTREC teacher in Barrow, Alaska, an astronomy ambassador to Chile, and a NOAA Teacher at Sea in Kodiak, Alaska. I’ve even lived in a Mars simulation on the big island of Hawaii. I have been on a Discovery Channel reality TV show called The Colony, a PBS show called Genius by Stephen Hawking, and I am currently in a Science Channel show called Strange Evidence. But what I love the most is speaking at schools across the country and inspiring students to explore our world.


Dr. Sian Proctor in Mars Simulation

What’s challenging?

The most challenging part of my job is managing an entire department by myself. There are so many facets to my job that it sometimes becomes overwhelming. I don’t like having to deal with all the emails, meetings and, of course, grading. Finding balance between the parts that you love to do and the tasks you wish you didn’t have to do is all part of the job.

What’s your advice to students?

My advice is to take advantage of all the opportunities you have as a student. Apply for internships, work with your professors on projects, and/or volunteer your time to learn new skills and get experience. Push beyond your comfort zone and have fun exploring our world and beyond!


Dr. Sian Proctor with pollock.

Research Assistant, Mars System Lab, Jozef Kozár @sciencemars_com: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Dr. Jozef Kozár

NAME:  Dr Jozef Kozár

CURRENT TITLE:  Research scientist at Mars Systems Laboratory, Kosice, Slovakia

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  My research interest is multi-disciplinary, covering robotic and planetary exploration missions, systems engineering and planetary science. My work is fully focused on Mars. For example, one of the projects that I am working on these days is a concept of global navigation satellite system for planet Mars. This includes deep research in almost every part of the planetary science related to Mars – from the ground to the very last, top levels of atmosphere and ionosphere of this beautiful planet.


EDUCATION:  Ph.D. from Technical University of Kosice, Slovakia; planetary science postgraduate courses and research, systems engineering and aerospace.


What’s your job like?

I would say that sometimes I feel like I’m “sitting on two chairs at the same time” – systems engineering and planetary science. My job is to study the newest knowledge and data related to planetary conditions of Mars and to apply them in the process of my research. For example, when we need to know how something like a positioning system will work on Mars, we need to simulate a specific scenario with exactly the same conditions like those on Mars. These conditions depend on the actual location on Mars, position of simulated satellites, solar activity of that time and of course many other aspects. My job usually begins with an idea, then follows with pencil and paper. The harder part, but also very interesting part, is the study of the mentioned data and then calculations, computing, simulations and evaluation of the results. Sometimes in the research process I find something interesting and new, and this usually leads to the study of something that we did not even know before.

What’s a typical day like?

My typical day starts at 05:30 a.m., when my dog Ringo wakes me up. When having a morning coffee in our kitchen, I usually read all fresh emails and news related to my work. So, usually the fresh information and news from my field of interest is also my first “food.” During the day, I usually work on various system engineering tasks, preparing inputs for following research steps and … thinking. When you are trying to propose something new, some new system, you usually spend some time with that and you end up with the result saying, “Ok, it cannot work this way. So, let’s do it in a different way.“ When you do something very detailed, there are many particular steps and some of them can be more than interesting. In these cases, you must think like some kind of martian to find the right answer.

My typical activities during a day also include writing the results and finalizing them in papers. If I am happy and some of my papers are accepted by editors, then these are published. At present, I do not teach anymore (who knows, maybe I will get a chance to resume teaching also). Preparing of my presentations and keynotes covers a lot of my time, because I am a perfectionist. You can imagine when you do something that you love – you finish your day very late at night.

What’s fun?

I can say that fun is every part of my work related to Mars and space. With this kind of work, you are never bored. Of course, some days may be a little bit stressful, especially when you do not have enough time to do everything that you initially wanted. Anyway, stress occurs when you open new data or when you just walk through the newest stunning photos from Mars. You immediately become a part of that silent and beautiful world all around. From time to time, I do appear as a speaker in some public event or in a planetarium. And for me, it is really amazing to share the information about my work or just about Mars.

What’s challenging?

As I mentioned above, challenging is every simple step of my work, because you never know where this step can lead. You typically ask one question, create some hypothesis and then follow up with research and study. But when everything leads nowhere, then it usually comes. You can feel it and this motivates you further.

What’s your advice to students?

Never give up on dreaming. Do only what you like and your money will come sooner or later. I know it very well. OK, do not laugh! I am not rich, but I am happy with my work and life balance. Of course, when you are still at school or university, try to attend as many interesting courses and classes as possible. Read, listen and watch. Absorb a lot of information and then use this information in making your dreams and ideas come true. And one last piece of advice – do not worry about asking questions. Remember that your opinion is important as well, so share it with others, even your teacher.

PhD Researcher, Carbon Sequestration, Adrienne MacArtney: A Day in the GeoLife Series

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.


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.
  • Picture 1Geochemical 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.
  • Picture 2Rover 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.

Picture 3What’s a typical day like?

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.

What’s fun?

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.

Picture 4What’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.

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MSSS Scientist, Mars Imagery, Andrew Britton @KalofXeno: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME:  Andrew Britton

CURRENT TITLE:  Assistant Staff Scientist at Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS), San Diego, California

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Planetary geology of Mars; remote sensing

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE:  9 years (image processing).

EDUCATION:  M.Sc. Space Science, University College London (2012); B.S. Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University (2010)

What’s your job like?

I am trained to take pictures of Mars using the Context Camera (CTX) onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). I also assist other MSSS science personnel in conducting ongoing scientific research with data from Mars spacecraft. This ongoing research includes seasonal campaigns and monitoring for new gully and impact crater formation/activity. Preparing data for archive in the Planetary Data System is another one of my roles.


Suite of instruments on flight deck of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (1/4 scale model). Image taken at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Open House by Andrew Britton October 2014.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day can include viewing logged images that have recently come back to Earth. Each image is viewed to check for quality, weather conditions, and surface changes. Part of our extended mission is to continue to monitor for new candidate impact sites and new gully activity. Other daily activities include targeting the Context Camera (CTX) on the spacecraft, updating Mars maps that serve as targeting aids, and writing Mars weather reports.


Space Camera! Full-Scale Model of MARDI (Mars Descent Imager). Image taken at San Diego Festival of Science and Engineering Expo Day by Andrew Britton March 2015.

What’s fun?

There are so many aspects of my job that are rewarding, including exploring Mars by targeting areas of the red planet that have not been imaged at 6 meter/pixel resolution, making beautiful maps, and sharing information with the public at public outreach events! On rare occasions, it is extremely fun to go out in the field to a Mars analog site like the Mohave desert or Barchan Dunes of Imperial Valley, California!

Barchan Dunes

Fresh grainflow mass wasting. Mars analog field trip to Barchan Dunes of Imperial Valley, California. Image taken by Andrew Britton November 2015.

What’s challenging?

Staying ahead on balancing primary duties with side projects that also need to be completed for the good of the company and the mission is challenging. Training someone while being trained yourself is also challenging. There is always data that can be collected, software to be upgraded, and workflows to be streamlined.

What’s your advice to students?

“Do what you love and the money will follow.” This is some of the best advice I received from my field geology professor as an undergraduate. Find what you love. Find something that you are willing to do more than just a hobby and become a professional at it. Learn how to fail by accepting that failure is a great way to learn. Know that no one was born a professional. Everyone was once a beginner. Learn how to code. I believe that one day knowing how to code will be almost equivalent to knowing how to read!