Scientist in the Spotlight. Tim G.

Happy December y’all! It’s bloody freezing here in the UK just in time to help us get into the festive spirit! I even saw tweets earlier where people had spotted Christmas trees covered in snow in some parts of the country on the 1st December! That is crazy but so exciting! Anyway, to spread a little festive cheer and some holiday magic I have got some festive posts lined up for this month – of course with a science twist! But not to go too OTT with Christmas and snow and holidays as soon as the advent calendars are allowed to be opened, I thought I would celebrate the last month of the year with a classic and introduce you to my last Scientist in the Spotlight for 2017!

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I always loved learning about space in school but I could never quite grasp it and the sheer scale of everything! I can comprehend microscopic proteins in a cell, but thinking of galaxies and stars – well, that blows my mind. But when I was trying to understand this in school, I always needed to know why something was happening to try and understand it. I kept asking my physics teacher to which he kept telling me he couldn’t really explain to me because the explanations were degree level physics. So naturally, because I couldn’t grasp it, I didn’t study it any further. But that’s never stopped me being fascinated by space. I love watching programs with Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain to get my physics-y fix! So when I heard about a new program called ‘Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes’ my space nerd excitement rocketed! I loved this program where Commander Chris Hadfield and some other experts put a select few contestants through several stages that mimicked the taxing training and selection process that potential astronauts go through. So, my last Scientist in the Spotlight for 2017 was a finalist on this show and his insatiable passion and enthusiasm for space inspired me and made me want to learn more! I am thrilled to introduce you to Tim G and share snippets of his journey from cosmochemist to cosmonaut!

Tim is currently studying for a PhD in cosmochemistry which combines his love for rocks and space, and researches the first few million years of Solar System history by studying the isotopic composition of meteorites. In other words, he measures the timing between events in the first few million years of the Solar System’s life by using radioactive ‘clocks’. It is a super cool project where he gets to work with rocks that are some of the oldest in the Solar System. I remember reading one of Tim’s tweets where he was travelling on the London Underground with a rucksack full of rocks that were billions of years old! How incredible is that? But it was when Tim completed a 10 week internship with NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas during his undergrad where he fell in love with meteorites. So, really it’s no surprise that with his background in planetary science and geology he wants to get up into space to get hold of some himself!

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I don’t think there is any other way I can start than asking why you applied for the Astronauts show?

Tim: Being an astronaut has always been a pipe dream of mine. To be able to see the Earth from space, and continue the journey of exploration, would be AMAZING! When I saw the advertisement for Astronauts on Twitter, I just had to apply. I knew the chances of getting onto the program were very slim, but they would definitely be zero if I didn’t apply at all!

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Has being on the show changed your mind about become an astronaut at all?

Tim: Being on the show has only made me want to be an astronaut even more. The six weeks of astronaut selection were some of the best weeks of my life. However, I am very realistic and know that the chances of me ever becoming an astronaut in real life are almost zero. But there’s no harm in trying right?

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What was it like meeting Commander Chris Hadfield?

Tim: Very VERY cool! He’s even cooler in real life than I could have imagined. He has great stories to tell, and great lessons to pass on. Getting to know him, and Iya and Kevin the other experts, was one of the best parts of taking part in Astronauts. Each of them were inspiring in their own ways.

Image result for tim astronaut bbc

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What was the most surprising thing you learnt during your ‘astronaut selection process’?

Tim: That I’m pretty good at ‘winging’ things! I’m usually a meticulous planner. I love making a detailed plan and follow it – maybe it’s the cosmochemist in me! But being part of Astronauts really pushed me out of my comfort zone. We had almost no notice before each test, and we had no idea what was coming next. So since Astronauts I’ve become way more comfortable with not having a plan – thought I do still plan lab work down to the finest detail.

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Talking of lab work, what is a typical day like for a cosmochemistry PhD student?

Tim: I’m usually in very early – between 6am and 7am – because I love the tranquility of the morning before the hustle and bustle of daily life begins. This is when I do my ‘boring chores’ like emails over a cup of tea before I go to the lab. I work in a clean lab most days. I have to wear a ‘lab coat onesie’, gloves etc to keep the lab as clean as possible. I also have to go through an airlock before I enter the main lab. Everything that goes into the lab has to be thoroughly cleaned to get rid of any dust. The only time I’m ever at my desk is when I’m doing those boring tasks and reducing data. I measure my samples on a mass spectrometer, which means LOTs of data crunching. No two days are the same in PhD life though!

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What was your inspiration and what made you choose science?

Tim: I’ve always loved science. There was never a moment or an event that sparked my interest! I’m very lucky that my mum has always encouraged my interest – she used to buy me encyclopaedias and science books. As a kid I was interested in loads of stuff, from marine biology to mushrooms, to bird watching. But geology and space were always my biggest interests. My bedroom has had a rock collection in it for as long as I can remember – and it still does!

Science makes the world a far more interesting place to live. The world is far more beautiful when you know more about how it works. I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to pursue my interest and curiosity in nature through my life, and I’m very lucky that I can continue to do so now in my PhD.

Image result for tim gregory astronaut

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I don’t know much about rocks we find here on Earth, let alone ‘space rocks’! So perhaps you could tell us some more about meteorites?

Tim: A meteorite is a solid natural object – ie a rock! – that falls to the Earth from space! Most of them originate from the asteroid belt – the region of rocky debris that orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. But some meteorites also come from the Moon, and some even come from Mars! Meteorites make their way to the Earth by being knocked off their parent body – so the asteroid from which they originate! Once they’ve been ejected into space, most of them fall into the Sun or leave the Solar System entirely, but a lucky few can fall to Earth. Asteroids are the left over bits from the epoch of planet formation four and a half billion years ago, so by studying pieces of them we can learn about the earliest history of the Solar System.

me with meteorite 2017

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What do you like to do in your spare time?

Tim: I love hiking and camping. I think I’m most at peace when surrounded by natural things like natural landscapes, and the plants and animals that live there. I’m also a keen photographer, which goes hand in hand with my love of landscapes. I also run several times a week, and play guitar!

Science communication is also something that I spend a lot of time doing. I regularly go into local schools to talk about science – both space and geology. Science is too important not to be a mainstream part of our culture, so I try and do my bit to spark an interest in science in the public, and especially young people. It’s my duty and my privilege as a scientist to talk about it to a lay audience!

hiking 2017 2

school outreach 2017 2

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So, what do you think is the future of space exploration?

Tim: I would love to see permanent human habitation on the Moon within my lifetime. We’re pretty good at living in low-Earth orbit for extended periods of time now with all the research that’s been done on-board MIR and the ISS over the past few decades. But I think it’s time to learn how to live on a solid surface that isn’t Earth. The Moon is a good choice because it’s a) close to home and b) not difficult to get to. It would lay the foundations for permanent human habitation of Mars, which I think is something that will happen in the next 50 years or so.

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And finally, where in the world should I be visiting next?

Tim: Whitby, in my home county of Yorkshire. It’s got a fantastic coastal landscape, has interesting geology with loads of fossils and has loads of chip shops for a chip butty by the seafront. And the Yorkshire folk are very friendly.

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Huge thank you to Tim for taking the time to answer my questions. I will keep everything crossed for you that you can become an astronaut one day, or maybe be amongst the first to inhabit Mars! But your passion and enthusiasm is infectious so I am so happy to see that there are scientists like you celebrating science in schools. Hopefully I can come along to some big talk you do one day. But I do think Brain Cox needs to watch out for his job 😛

If you want to follow Tim’s journey as a cosmochemist you can follow him on Twitter here.

As this is also the last Scientist in the Spotlight of the year I want to thank all my featured scientists from this year and those who featured in my first ever monthly special on the blog. We have caught up with some and I hope to follow the others too! And I can’t wait to share with you more scientists and their stories in 2018! Let me know if you want to be featured or want me to feature someone!

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Science love.

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