Featured Day in the Life of: Marina,Doctoral Student in Meteoritics

Hi! My name is Marina and I am a geologist and astrophysicist in the final year of my PhD at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque (USA). I study meteorites from different solar system bodies: Mars, the Moon, and primitive asteroids from the asteroid belt (between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter). Although my PhD has been very challenging, I am super passionate about my work and I feel fortunate to study what I like the most: meteorites. Meteoritics is perfect for me because it is a field that combines my two passions: geology and outer space.

For my dissertation, I am carrying out two different research projects. One is about the origin of water in the solar system, studying in unprecedented detail the first interaction between primordial water and the first solid material in the solar system. I study some of the oldest (4.57 million years old) and primitive materials that formed out of the solar nebula. This research has broader implications regarding the role of water in the early solar system.

The second project is about Mars. I study meteorites that come from a volcano in Mars to assess the sources of their volatile elements (fluorine, chlorine, and water), trapped in a mineral called apatite. I also seek to gain insights into the magmatic system from where these meteorites originated. To do that, I study the mineral apatite at the micron and nanometer scales. In addition, I compare the Martian apatite with lunar apatite (samples from the Apollo missions) and chondritic apatite (from primitive asteroids) because little work has been done in the microstructure of this mineral and this approach helps me better understand what is going on. It is amazing to realize how much information resides in such small scales that has been overlooked.

I spend a lot of time in the lab. I work with many instruments but the two I use the most are the Scanning Electron Microscopy or SEM, where I prepare the micron/nanometer samples called Focused Ion Beam or FIB sections, and the Transmission Electron Microscopy or TEM, where I perform all sorts of different analyses in these FIB sections. Although people might think lab work might is boring, it is actually very fun. Once I learnt how to use the instruments on my own, I started making exciting discoveries. The feeling of discovery something new or unexpected is exhilarating.

Since I have been quarantined due to Covid-19, I had to use some old pictures. I am the kind of person who takes a lot of pictures, so it was easy to arrange one of my regular days as a PhD student.

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I wake up between 6:30-6:45 AM now that the weather is nicer (in winter is a bit harder…).

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I have breakfast at 7:30 – here I am showing a breakfast that my boyfriend prepared. Breakfast usually consists of lemon juice (first thing in the morning), a smoothie with banana, apple, and another seasonal fruit, blended with almond milk, a side of oatmeal or some toasts, and coffee.

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I arrive to UNM at 7:55 AM (I live ridiculously close to university). In the picture, you can appreciate the typical adobe architecture. It maybe is the most characteristic thing of New Mexico, along with green chili.

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I get into the lab at 8:00, sometimes a bit later. I like to work on the TEM in the mornings, because this instrument has no time restrictions. Here, I am filling liquid nitrogen (picture) in the vacuum and setting some parameters in the instrument. It takes several minutes for the TEM to be ready after a night of not using it.

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Meanwhile, I select the sample I am going to work on. These are the boxes where I keep my samples. The upper box is for my FIB sections, which are the samples that are just a few microns in size – you actually can’t see them, but you can see the copper grid where they are mounted in. Then I place the FIB in the TEM holder. This the most stressful moment in the day. These samples are so tiny that they can be blown away it my glove graze and destroy them, which means many hours of work gone in a second. It has happened a few times:(

 

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1.37 PM – I arrive home at 1 PM more or less and I prepare lunch. I prefer cooking rather than eating out, especially living so close to my workplace. I find this to be an advantage!

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2.35 PM – After lunch, I go to a coffee shop to do my writing. I write between two and six hours each day, depending on the lab work. I like doing my to-do list for the next day once I finish writing. When I stop, I quickly write all the ideas I have in my mind that I did not have time to cover/develop. This way it feels easier to start writing the next day, because I already know what I need to accomplish (reasonable goals).

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Before I go to the lab, I like to organize all my data and make sure I know what I need to analyze. In the picture, I am showing data from my first project. On the bottom right, you can see a mosaic done with the SEM, the instrument I start at 5 PM, and an x-ray elemental RGB map of the same meteorite on the top right. This is the meteorite where I have been studying the action of the first liquid water in the solar system.

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5:00 PM is the time when I start SEM lab work. There have been periods during my PhD when I have been at the SEM quite often, but now I am almost in the end (I have done most of my FIB samples), which means I am requiring less SEM work. In the picture, I am mounting a Martian meteorite in the microscope.

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Here is an example of how I make a FIB section. I mount the meteorite thin section (previous picture) in the microscope and then electronically (but manually), I extract a FIB foil (15 x 10 x 2 microns size) from it using beams of ions and needles, and I mount it to a copper grid (picture). The sample is finished after the milling process, when it reaches 50 nm width. This is what I bring to the TEM to do the different analyses. To make one FIB section takes about 6-8 hours of work (2 days at the SEM), but it depends a lot on how the instrument is behaving.

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I am a juice lover, every day or every other day I make a juice with different veggies when I arrive home in the evening. This one is made with beets, carrots, apple, orange, and ginger.

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I have dinner at 8:30 PM (in the picture, a meal that my boyfriend prepared).

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9:35 PM – Before going to sleep, I watch a movie, or an episode from a TV show, or I read a book, so I disconnect a little bit.

Obviously days can vary and have been a bit different during the course of my PhD. For example, last fall I was teaching, so lab work was more limited. I also like to exercise. These days I’ve been playing soccer. What I have shown you here has been my routine over the last three months and until the Covid-19 pandemic started. I leave you with my instagram username in case you want to contact or follow me: @marina.alart

Thank you for reading!

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