Introduction to our 1st year PhD student

Hi, my name is Helen and I’m the newest PhD student to join the research group here in Manchester. My project involves trying to understand how rocky planets such as our own came to have such large quantities of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and water – components necessary for the evolution of life as we know it. It is currently believed that these may have accreted from asteroids and other small bodies early in the formation of the Solar System, a theory which can be investigated by studying meteorites that fall to Earth. Specifically I will be using a range of methods such as SEM, Raman, XRD, and nanoSIMS to look at a number of unequilibrated ordinary chondrites – some of the most primitive meteorites available – to reveal the abundance of these important volatiles.

Prior to starting my PhD I actually had very little knowledge of planetary science as a field!

I completed by bachelors at Amsterdam University College (AUC) where I was able to take a wide range of courses varying from logic to Dutch, ultimately majoring in physics and molecular biology with a minor in maths. AUC is a small international university where all the courses were in English, and the student population was about 50% dutch and the other 50% from different places all around the world. Leaving my home country alone at the age of 18 was pretty daunting prospect, but once I arrived it wasn’t scary at all and was a great experience that I think more people should do. Amsterdam itself is an amazing city, and I really enjoyed the cycling culture – we cycled everywhere, no matter the distance or size of the group.

During my degree I also studied for a semester at the University of Cape Town, where I had the opportunity to assist in observations at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) of galaxies in the Zone of Avoidance (the region of the sky obscured by the centre of the milky way). Cape Town was totally opposite to Amsterdam. It is a huge city with many outdoor activities such as hiking and surfing, the university is over 20 times the size of AUC, and it was a lot further away. It also has its issues though, with enormous disparity difference between the wealthy and the poor. The student protests, which took place while I was there, called attention to this and resulted in the university being shut down for months.

I returned to the UK for my MSc, which I did at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics (JBCA), here at The University of Manchester. I worked on newly obtained mid-infrared VLT (Very Large Telescope) observations of nearby red giants to determine their dust shell compositions and mass-loss rates. Of particular interested were M-type stars, which are surrounded by silicate rich dust shells. Once these stars die, this dust will be expelled into the interstellar medium where it may go on to form future asteroids or planets – just like the ones in our Solar System. Despite my astrophysics background I was always more interested in the small scale, planetary side of astronomy and the origin of life, so am looking forward to seeing what the next 3 years hold.

The four unit telescopes of the VLT at sunset. Observations for my MSc were taken with Melipal, the second telescope from the left. Photo credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi.
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