Wednesday, June 25, 2014

When the temperature was ridiculous.

Some days, weeks, and even entire months science doesn't go according to the nice and neat plan.  I tend to share some of the exciting and fun things that happen around here, but not all days are quite so joyful.

Instruments break.  Clean labs break.  Meters for measuring pH break.  Sometimes they all decide to break at the same time.  Welcome to May and June of 2014 in the Baxter lab!

This is the reading on the thermometer in the clean lab today (Photo credit to my labmate Jamie Kendall!)..... read that right.  It's 95 degrees (Fahrenheit) in the clean lab. The clean lab is supposed to be at a tightly controlled 68 to 70 degrees F in order for chemistry to continue!  Luckily, I could spend the day paper writing and crossing my fingers that the new air conditioner gets installed on the roof via crane soon!

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Lab Shoe Reminder

When working in the clean lab, I have a special pair of shoes that are only worn in that lab.  It keeps me from tracking dirt in from the outside and also keeps my feet nice and safe from any acid that might spill.  Most of us who work in the lab use rubberized garden clogs, which also have an added style bonus! ;-)

Earlier this week, I was happily working along in the clean lab dissolving garnet.  At some point I looked down at my clean lab shoes and realized..."GASP! I have a hole!"  The time has come for my shoes to remind me that I have been a PhD student for three years now.  I ordered new shoes, which arrived today.  I think it shows clearly just how far I've already come as a PhD student....

If all goes well...this pair will last me through the rest of my PhD!  I've walked many miles in those shoes and they've seen a lot of come new science adventures and new shoes!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Time flies and research inches along but graduation only creeps closer.

I freely admit it...I have totally neglected the blog over the past academic year.  My excuse would be that "things have been crazy, unsettled, and really hectic around here," but the longer I am in graduate school the more I realize that anyone in academia probably claims the same excuse.

In the same format as several of my most recent posts, here is a partial summary of highlights from the past two semesters in no particular order:

  • This month I become my adviser's most senior graduate student.  The labmate ahead of me defends her dissertation at the end of June and will be headed off to new science adventures. That puts my adviser back to three graduate students for this coming year.
  • I applied for and was granted a Graduate Research Grant from the Geological Society of America to work on a comparative study of detrital garnet ages versus detrital zircon and monazite ages from modern sediments in the southern Appalachian mountains.  This study will be either the second or third chapter of my dissertation!  In addition, I was recognized as one of 10 (out of 774 total applicants) awarded an Outstanding Mention for exceptional merit in conception and presentation of my grant application.  There's a chance that I may be attending the GSA fall meeting in Vancouver.
  • I completed two more classes.  I finally got to take a tectonics seminar and an isotope geochemistry course.  It's about time for an official isotopes course since I call myself an isotope geochemist..don't you think?!  Only two more courses to go during the remainder of my PhD.
  • I am currently writing my first, first-author paper, which will also be the first completed chapter of my dissertation.  I presented part of the research that the paper is based on at the AGU fall meeting in San Francisco last December.
  • During April and May I worked on a collaborative research project with Drs. Lenka and David Baratoux.  They came to Boston University as visiting scientists to date garnet from West African rocks as a part of the WAXI program (West African Exploration Initiative).  It is pretty exciting to be working on rocks that are being studied for the very first time!  I have been involved as an adviser for experiment planning, as a lab assistant as they learned the techniques for garnet geochronology here at BU, and as the lab tech for completing the clean-up work now that they have returned home.
The coming months should include work on preliminary data for a new grant application, completion of my first-author paper on garnet from the Jack Hills, and lots and lots of sample preparation for upcoming projects.  I'm also hoping to write a step-by-step methodology as I work in the lab this summer.  The plan is to include portions of that guide as blog posts illustrating what a day in the life of an isotope geochemist looks like.

In other news, I have been working on a brand new personal, academic website.  You can now find my personal page at  Right now it is fairly basic and includes my professional background and current work, but soon I hope to add lab pictures, lesson plans, and more. I'm always open to suggestions for website improvements as I move towards graduation and job hunting in the next few years!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

I'm a 3rd year?!

Now that the brand new crop of first year graduate students are starting to arrive, I will officially have to introduce myself as a third year PhD candidate.  I remember meeting one of the third year students when I first started grad. school and thinking "Wow!  She has it all together and knows what she's doing!"  Now I am supposed to be the third year student who has it all together...and some days it certainly doesn't seem like that'll ever be true!

Also, two of the brand new students are joining my adviser's lab group- which means I am no longer the "baby" of my adviser's students.  I am moving up to "middle child" status and looking forward to it.  :-)

As I think ahead to the coming year (or even more immediately to fall semester), there are potentially some big research goals ahead!

  • Present research at AGU.  I am going to the AGU conference in San Francisco, CA in December for the first time.  I am very excited that I will finally be able to share my most recent research, present some cool old garnet ages, and see lots of science.  (Plus it's my first visit to San Francisco and I'll get to meet up with an old friend or two!)
  • Write and submit for publication my first, first-author paper.  It's time to tackle my first paper!  It's going to cover the same research being presented at AGU.  Then I will finally be able to openly share what I have been working on for the past year.
  • Lots and lots of lab work.  I think it's pretty self-explanatory- I need to generate as many quality garnet ages as possible on rocks from around the globe.
  • Hopefully some field work!  Who doesn't want to go look at some of Earth's oldest rocks in northern Canada or Greenland?!
  • At least two more classes.  I finally get to take isotope geochemistry.  About time, since I'm an isotope geochemist!
Here's to another year of graduate school adventures and LOTS of science ahead!

(Bonus update: This week I officially hit my 300th sample run on the TIMS.  Time for a new log book!  I also made the mistake of calculating how much time that means I've spent sitting in the TIMS chair and running the instrument and came up with a rough estimate of more than a month's worth of 12 hour days.)

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Hitting the Highlights

I can't believe that it has been about nine months since I wrote a blog post.  Blogging has unfortunately had a tendency to get pushed further and further down the to-do list in favor of new data or pressing deadlines.  

Let me just hit the highlights from the past nine months.  Since the last post I...
  • Applied for and was awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship that will cover my stipend for the next three years of my PhD.
  • Submitted my dissertation proposal plus took (and passed) my written and oral qualifying exams so I am now officially a PhD candidate.
  • Completed a couple more classes.
  • Dated detrital garnets from two new field sites.
  • Attempted to still sleep, eat, and not let science totally consume my life.
  • Spent the entire past 6 weeks working super long days and cranking out data for an AGU abstract and my first paper.
Hopefully the next nine months will hold equally exciting highlights and more consistent blog posts!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hurricane Sandy visits Boston

I suppose I can now say that I have been through my first hurricane.  Growing up in the Midwest, hurricanes were something that I only heard about on the news.  I would watch videos of rain jacket clad weathermen struggling to stand upright, but I never really expected to see it firsthand.

Hurricane Sandy brought plenty of rain and wind to Boston yesterday, but for us the worst is past.  Yesterday Boston University closed both campuses and the MBTA stopped all mass transit service at 2PM.  My roommates and I stayed home and settled in for a day of matlab homework and studying, as the wind gradually picked up throughout the day.  By early afternoon we were watching people who had gone to work in the morning head home and struggle to stand upright in the wind.  As the day went on, the storm only continued to grow.  According to the National Weather Service, by evening we had reached peak wind gusts of 64mph in the area where I live.  We could see trees across the street swaying back and forth and rain pelted our windows.  This continued for several hours but eventually the winds began to die down and the storm quieted overnight.

Despite the hurricane yesterday, this morning Boston is already getting back to business as usual.  As I walked to work this morning I saw some branches down and leaves littered the streets, but the day feels more like a rainy spring day than the morning after a hurricane.  The MBTA has been running since 8AM and BU officially reopens at 11AM (though many grad students have been back to work for a couple hours already!).  Power is still out for thousands of people across the state but it is slowly being restored and much of the city is already up and running.  [In fact, most of the area where I live never lost power- even during the peak of the storm.]  All in all...Boston dodged the worst of it.

Sadly New York and New Jersey did not fare as well.  Our thoughts and prayers will be with them as they face a long cleanup process and try to put their lives back together.

PS- Science did not stop for the hurricane.  I worked on matlab from home but evidently one of my labmates ran the TIMS during the hurricane and the other was so focused on writing his dissertation he didn't notice that a tree fell in his front yard.  Ah grad student life.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

TIMS Tutorial: The Basics

Monday morning I finished the first drafts of all three of my NSF graduate research fellowship application essays.  Monday afternoon\Tuesday morning I finished this week's homework set for the applied statistics course I'm taking.  But now it's Wednesday afternoon and today I feel like I haven't completed anything besides discovering new research roadblocks.  It seems like graduate school is full of bursts of fairly impressive productivity followed by lulls where the instrument doesn't work, experiments fail one after another, and the to-do list gets longer and longer but nothing gets marked off.  If anyone with vastly more science experience has tips for how to overcome lulls I'd be happy to listen!

In an attempt to do something productive and work on my science communication skills (I need all the practice I can get...qualifying/comprehensive exams are looming!) I have decided that one of the projects I'm finally going to tackle during my lab work lull is to write about the main instrument that I use in my research.  Plus, I often learn best by teaching!  I've been meaning to do this for a while and if you've seen references in my posts to "the instrument" or "the TIMS" and wondered what on Earth that was..this is the series for you!  Hopefully, today's post will provide necessary background for those of you with little or no exposure to isotope geochemistry.  Next post I'll show you how the samples get loaded onto the machine and eventually we'll talk about how the machine actually goes from the samples to a useful result and what running the TIMS is really like.

The primary instrument we use in my research lab is a "thermal ionization mass spectrometer," which we refer to as "the TIMS" for short.  [Which, incidentally, has lead to several comical instances where people overheard me telling someone that I "date garnet" or "spend a lot of time with the TIMS" and then inquired about the romance in my life after assuming I was talking about a boy! lol] Breaking down the full name of the instrument actually gives a pretty solid overview of the instrument's purpose.  The TIMS uses high temperatures to ionize (break down into individual charged atoms) the sample, separates the ions by mass using an electromagnet, and allows us to measure the relative abundance of ions at specific masses to determine isotope ratios.  If that just went over your head, don't despair yet!  I promise upcoming posts will have pictures and likely use household objects as analogies to break this overview down into manageable parts.

First...a little general background on geochronology and why I use this crazy instrument.  As an 'isotope geochemist,' my goal is to figure out the age of each of my garnet grains and then use those ages to examine bigger questions about how mountains form and the surface of the Earth changes.  Figuring out the age of the garnet is possible because garnet includes trace amounts of a radioactive element called samarium (Sm) that decays to the element neodymium (Nd) at a known rate.  It takes 1.06x10^11 (106 billion) years for enough Sm to decay so that only half of the original amount is left (called the half-life).  Also, garnet is basically never 100% usually contains little bits of other minerals that we refer to as inclusions.  To borrow an example from my can think of it as a chocolate chip cookie.  The cookie is the garnet and the chocolate chips are the bits of other minerals, or inclusions, inside the garnet.  Many of these inclusions contain a different ratio of  Sm to Nd than the pure garnet (just like the chocolate chips and the cookie base would have different ratios of sugar to milk).  Therefore, I use the TIMS to measure the Sm and Nd ratios in the pure garnet and in the inclusions.  Since the ratios are different and the rate of decay is known, when I plot the ratios for the pure garnet and the inclusions I can define a line between two points, called an isochron.
The slope of the isochron = The age of the garnet!

By the time I am ready to walk into the TIMS lab and start an analysis, I have already been working through sample preparation and clean lab chemistry on a single garnet grain for several weeks.  Those week of work result in a set of 4 beakers, each containing a single bead of dried goop about the size of a ballpoint pen's tip.  The four beakers contain the Nd from the pure garnet, the Sm from the pure garnet, the Nd from the inclusions, and the Sm from the inclusions.  Each isochron that results in an accurate age requires all four samples to run successfully on the TIMS, usually with only one shot at getting each one right. 

This is a very simplistic overview of geochronology and mass spectrometry, especially since there are entire courses on the principles of these areas of study.  Basically, once you understand that by measuring isotope ratios of Sm and Nd we can figure out the age of garnet, you understand the purpose of using a TIMS and one of my basic research goals. The remainder of my research examines ways that we can apply these methods to new materials that have never been dated or how the ages that I get tell us about the rates of metamorphism, when sedimentary basins open and close, how metamorphic conditions change over time, and much more.