What is your name?
Maeve Murphy Quinlan
Where do you work and what is your role/job title?
I’m a PhD researcher in planetary science and teaching assistant in geology and geophysics in the University of Leeds, in the UK. I’m funded by a UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) grant. My job is a mix of cosmochemistry and planetary geophysics: I build geophysical models of the small bodies that meteorites originated in, and then try to constrain these models with data I gather from analysing the chemistry of meteorites. I try to tie microscopic processes within meteorites to the planetary-scale processes that happened in their parent bodies.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
Yes, the work hours are quite flexible outside of booked lab hours and teaching during term time. There’s a good culture of maintaining a healthy work-life balance in my department which I think is very important because with self-directed research it’s easy to end up working late evenings or on the weekend. We’re right by the Yorkshire Dales so there’s lots of opportunity for hiking, and lots of my colleagues are outdoorsy and like to organise day trips. I get paid a base salary and then additional hourly wages for teaching and get the opportunity to travel (with expenses paid) for conferences and fieldwork. While the pay isn’t great, the cost of living in Leeds is low. However, it would be challenging if I had dependents and this can be a barrier for entry for students.
Questions about your current Job
How did you go about getting your current job?
I studied science in university, initially starting out in physics but then choosing a degree in geology instead. I applied for the PhD position straight out of my undergrad as the costs involved in studying for a master’s degree were prohibitive. I googled “PhD program” along with keywords related to the study I wanted to do planetary science, planetology (the study of planets) and cosmochemistry (the study of the composition of meteorites). I found these keywords by looking through researcher profiles on one of NASA’s websites. I asked one of my lecturers in undergraduate for advice about applying for a PhD because I didn’t know what the process was like: I didn’t know whether it was ok to apply for more than one (you can!), whether you should email the lead researcher first before applying (you should!) or whether my qualifications were going to be enough (they were!). My lecturer wrote a reference for me, gave me advice on writing a personal statement, and when I reached the interview stage, ran practise interviews with me to prepare me. Once I emailed my prospective supervisors showing interest in their project, they were also very supportive throughout the application and interview process – they were not involved in the interview and hiring but could help me with my application. I was interviewed by a panel of academics from the University of Leeds, and my travel costs were reimbursed shortly after the interviews.
Describe a typical day.
My research tries to bridge the gap between two different fields: studying the composition of meteorites and using computers to model small planetary bodies. How my day looks depends strongly on which part of my project I’m focusing on at the time.
If I’m working on cosmochemistry, I might be in the lab for the day: I use instruments such as a scanning electron microscope or an electron microprobe to take extremely magnified images and measure the chemical composition of meteorites that are around 4.5 billion years old. A typical day is spent deciding what areas of the meteorites I want to analyse in further detail, then entering the coordinates and calibrating the instruments and letting them run overnight. Usually, my lunchbreak is short, and my day is long when I’ve booked the lab, as I want to use all the time available to me! I must get into the lab early the next day before the next person wants to start working, take out my samples and transfer all the beautiful maps and data from the microscope onto my work computer (if the analytical run went smoothly and the microscope didn’t break during the night!).
When I’m working on geophysics, I’m at my computer or laptop: this part of my work is quite flexible and can be done remotely. I use the computer language Python to build models of the small “planetesimals” or parent bodies that meteorites originated in. The Solar System is like a huge experiment that’s been running for 5 billion years, and we can only access the end result. Meteorites give us a snapshot of processes happening earlier on in the Solar System – they act like fossils of the early Solar System and help us piece together a picture of what the planet building process must have been like. Computer models allow us to try and recreate this experiment but speed up time: no one has 5 billion years to wait around for answers! I design planetesimals and allow them to evolve (with 400 million years of evolution taking around 90 seconds), then I see if the end result matches the information we have about temperatures and cooling rates inside meteorites. I also make sure to take lots of short breaks from the computer to rest my eyes and move about a bit – it’s easy to get caught up in trying to solve a problem in the code and not notice time passing!
I have meetings with my supervisors and different research groups sprinkled in around my research time. I also work as a teaching assistant for a few different courses – this means I help out alongside a lecturer during lab or practical classes, guiding students and answering any questions they might have. Teaching is great fun, especially when we get to go on fieldtrips.
What’s the coolest part of your job?
The fact I have a big collection of pallasite meteorites: these are beautiful metal meteorites speckled with green olivine crystals. When they’re thinly sliced, light can shine through the olivine like a stained-glass window. The metal crystals form interlocking criss-crossing patterns. They’re often sold at high prices to private collectors because they’re so beautiful. While I do think they look gorgeous, I’m more interested in their age: these are four and a half billion years old, and I get to hold them in my hands!
I also enjoy the hands-on aspect of running the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) or the Electron Probe MicroAnalyser (EPMA): these are impressively big pieces of equipment that can be temperamental to operate, so it’s always really satisfying when you produce interesting and useful data after a long day in the lab.
While outwardly it might not look the coolest, I love how portable the coding aspect of my project is – I can do it anywhere that I can bring a laptop. It’s nice to have a change of scenery sometimes and work from a cafe or library as opposed to my office.
Are there any elements of your job that you dislike?
Because my work is a strange hybrid of a job and study, I don’t like how it bleeds into my evenings and weekends. In general, our department is good for discouraging this, but especially when working from home it’s a challenge to make sure I don’t end up working during my time off.
Questions about education and training
What subjects did you take in school/college and how have these influenced your career path?
When I chose my leaving cert subjects, I planned on studying art or art history in college and only chose physics as a back-up option so that I had one science subject. I ended up really enjoying it, becoming really interested in space and astronomy, and chose astrophysics in college. I found physics at university really difficult and felt really out-of-place and not smart enough for the course (I now realise that while the course wasn’t a great fit for me, I also was suffering from pretty intense imposter syndrome). I swapped into geology instead after two years: I loved the fieldwork and the problem-solving aspects of it. I’ve always enjoyed hiking and the outdoors, so it was the perfect combination of science and my other interests. I really loved my degree, but I did also feel a little disappointed that I’d given up on studying space – until I realised that planetary science existed, and that I could use my geology background to study the evolution of other planets apart from Earth. My two years of university level physics have been a really useful background when grappling with the more maths-heavy aspects of my PhD research, so I’m glad I took the slightly circuitous path that I did!
Questions about yourself
What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
I’ve really enjoyed helping to organise and grow the planetary science research group in my university – I was one of very few planetary science students when I started my PhD but now, we have a great little group that meets weekly to discuss different aspects of planetary science. I’ve also really enjoyed going to planetary science conferences and meeting lots of other PhD students interested in similar things to me – a PhD can be a bit isolating if there’s no-one else in your department studying your specific topic, so it’s lovely to have the chance to make friends at workshops and events. I’ve also had the opportunity to run lots of different outreach events – it’s very easy to capture people’s attention and interest when you can offer them the chance to hold a piece of the Moon or Mars (I have some meteorites from both)!
What is your dream job?
I love research, and I’d like to take it a step up from working on meteorites: I’d love the chance to work on samples returned from other planetary bodies by space missions. With meteorites, we’re unsure of where exactly they came from originally and what they’ve been through to get here – whereas a sample picked up from the surface of an asteroid and brought back to Earth by a space craft doesn’t have that same complication!
Advice for people thinking of this job as a career choice.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job? Are there important personal characteristics, or good work experience they can undertake for example.
I never realised how many different areas of expertise existed in the study of space: there’s planetary geology and geomorphology, astrobiology, cosmochemistry, geophysics, space policy and ethics, space medicine… as well as the obvious astronomy, astrophysics, and aeronautical engineering! I would recommend people to think about what other interests they have and how they might be able to tie that to space research, and not to be put off because they don’t think they’re a good fit for astrophysics. In particular, look at planetary science and how relevant a background in geography or geology can be. There’s a whole world of space research that doesn’t require a maths and physics background.
During my undergrad degree, I worked in cafes and restaurants during the term time and the summer and was afraid my lack of “relevant” work experience would stand against me when applying for my PhD. In fact, I now realise that the transferrable skills like being able to work tidily and efficiently under pressure and with a team have proven very useful. If you can find a paid internship position relevant to your field of study then snap it up, but do not worry if you don’t have extracurricular experience.
While I wasn’t able to do work placements or internships during the summer, my college course offered an independent geochemistry research module where I was able to learn to prepare samples for analysis, use the scanning electron microscope, and interpret and write up my results. This allowed me to demonstrate that I could study independently and had experience of self-directed research in my PhD interview. I would recommend taking any opportunity during your degree to conduct research. While the theory content of my undergraduate didn’t map on particularly well to my PhD project (we didn’t look at planetary science or meteoritics in depth), the lab and problem-solving skills I learned were really useful.