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Associate Professor of Planetary Materials, University of Oxford

I’m interested in the role chemical processes play in the formation of planets, and how the accretion and differentiation of a planetary body determines its subsequent evolution (and habitability). For instance, the Earth’s metallic core generates our protective magnetic field which is crucial in making the Earth’s surface a (mostly!) pleasant and habitable place for life. But core formation also determines the elemental make-up of Earth’s rocky mantle, and determines the abundance and availability of a number of elements used across life, perhaps most notably iron (Fe). The terrestrial planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars – all have compositionally similar rocky mantles, but vary primarily in their iron content, which in turn reflects the different environments of planetary accretion. But what role does mantle iron content play in keeping water on the surface of Earth for timescales that allow the evolution of complex (and occasionally intelligent) life?

To explore questions like this I use a range of experimental techniques, from high temperature furnaces operating at atmospheric pressure, to experiments performed at the pressures and temperatures found at the Martian core-mantle boundary. Because experiments performed at very high pressures always result in small samples, my other research interest is the refinement of the analytical techniques required to make sense of the experiments. I primarily use electron and X-ray based microanalytical techniques, such as electron probe micro analysis (EPMA) and synchrotron light sources. To refine these techniques further, I can occasionally be found modelling these techniques from first principle – and, as we all know, ‘computer modelling’ is the art of generating data whilst appearing to look out of the window.

I’ve been known to dabble in other microanalysis techniques, including Laser Ablation ICP-MS, Atom Probe Tomography and Secondary Ion Mass Spectroscopy (SIMS) techniques. Together with colleagues in the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine and Perkin Elmer, we’ve recently started to explore the possibilities of applying single cell (particle) ICP-MS to the elemental analysis of biological and geological material.