From Chile to Manchester, and beyond! A lab season at the University of Cambridge


A field trip in the Andes, standing on the Chile-Argentina border. (Image: J. Estay Herrera)

I’m Javiera, a 2nd year PhD student, originally from Santiago, Chile. I studied my undergrad in Geology at the University of Chile, having the Andes as my training yard. I first came to Manchester in 2015 during my undergrad for a short internship, and then in 2016 I started my PhD. I’m investigating how molybdenum (which has the chemical symbol Mo) isotopes behave deep inside a subduction zone by studying basalts from the Izu volcanic arc, in Japan. We are interested in Mo isotopes in these rocks because they can help us figure out how the material that goes back into the Earth gets recycled.

To analyse isotopes of Mo we work in a special, very clean kind of lab (a.k.a. a clean lab), because the concentrations of this element in most rocks are so low that they can be easily contaminated even by a bit of dust! The instrument I used for my Mo isotope measurements in Manchester (MC-ICP-MS) had some problems and since then I’ve been travelling around the UK to do my analyses in other labs – last year at the University of Bristol, and now at the University of Cambridge, where a former postdoc of our group who I’m working with, Heye Freymuth, moved last August. I arrived in Cambridge during Easter for a 3-month analyses campaign, and so far I’ve had some very intense but exciting weeks!


King’s College Chapel seen from the top of Great St. Mary’s Church. (Image: J. Villalobos Orchard)

Cambridge is a small, beautiful city, with a huge history and tradition revolving the University and its several colleges. As the 4th oldest university in the world, Cambridge University has been the home of some of the greatest minds of the past centuries, which makes it both an inspiring and intimidating place at the same time. The isotope group at Cambridge is quite big and very friendly, and they’ve made me feel most welcome. There are always people around in the lab working on different elements (strontium (Sr), neodymium (Nd), iron (Fe), copper (Cu), to name a few!), so it´s a fun and motivating environment where we get to learn a lot from each other by sharing our experiences in the lab, both good and bad. No one had measured Mo isotopes at Cambridge before though, so prior to analysing my samples I’ve had to set up our chemical and instrumental methods in the lab and test them to make sure we get good quality results – this is what has kept me (very) busy these past few weeks! So far my results have been positive overall, with only minor issues which we are working on at the moment, so I believe I’ll be able to analyse my samples and get my greatly anticipated dataset quite soon!


On a punting tour, with the Bridge of Sighs of St. John’s College behind. (Image: R. López Adams)

But of course not everything can be about work. There’s a daily 11am coffee when the whole department gathers for a morning break, and a ‘happy hour’ every Friday evening where I’ve been able to socialise, share and discuss my project with my colleagues in a relaxed way and make new friends. Also, group member Rebeca came to see me last weekend – we visited King’s College and its gorgeous chapel, climbed to the top of Great St. Mary’s Church to get a nice view of the city, had a picnic on the river banks and took a punting tour through the River Cam! Maybe I’ll dare to go punting on my own by the end of my stay in Cambridge, who knows. Although Cambridge is not nearly as sunny and dry as Chile, it has way better weather than Manchester (not a hard one to beat!) so I’ve been able to explore the city under some lovely spring sunshine.

Every PhD comes with its challenges (if it were easy it wouldn’t be a PhD project in the first place!), but difficulties can end up becoming great opportunities – getting to work in different labs and gain experience, adapting to new environments; collaborating with other colleagues and expanding my network, and even living in Cambridge for a few months! I hope to make the most of my time here and get some interesting data to play around!


About Javiera Villalobos-Orchard

PhD student in isotope geochemistry at Manchester Isotope Group. Born and raised in Santiago, Chile, I've been living in the UK since 2016. My research is mainly focused on understanding how Mo isotopes behave in high temperature environments such as subduction zones and magma chambers.
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1 Response to From Chile to Manchester, and beyond! A lab season at the University of Cambridge

  1. Pingback: Atacama meteorite recovery expedition 2019 | Earth & Solar System

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