My Science Life: Planetary Geologist Dr. Paul Byrne

Welcome to the My Science Life feature of Dr. Paul Byrne, assistant professor in the Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences at North Carolina State University.

I am a planetary geologist, and my primary areas of expertise lie in using spacecraft and field data to understand tectonic and volcanic processes on Earth and other planets.

Originally from Ireland, I moved to the United States in 2011 for a postdoctoral fellowship with NASA’s MESSENGER mission to Mercury. Based at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, in northwestern Washington D.C., I worked with other planetary geologists to interpret images returned by the MESSENGER spacecraft, the first ever to orbit Mercury. In 2014 I moved to the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas to work with spacecraft data from the Cassini mission to Saturn. And in August 2015, I started as a faculty member at North Carolina State University, where I teach planetary science, structural geology, and components of several of our field-based courses.

The field of planetary science is relatively young but growing rapidly, and encompasses geology, physics, chemistry, and even biology—all of the subjects we need to understand planetary bodies as a whole, and the myriad processes, landforms, and phenomena they host. As a planetary geologist, I study the landforms and interior processes of numerous bodies in the Solar System, from rocky worlds such as Mercury, Venus, and Mars, to the diverse and fascinating icy satellites of the giant planets. Much of my research also features direct comparison of planetary bodies with Earth and with each other, via an approach we term “comparative planetology”. This approach allows us to leverage what we know of one particular world and extend that understanding to many others, including our own. I also increasingly think about extrasolar planets, those that orbit other stars. Although this is arguably one of the youngest aspects of the discipline of planetary science, it’s also one of the most exciting for it gives us a glimpse into the fundamental processes that control how star systems, and their planets, form in general.

What is your job like on a daily basis?

My job divides neatly into two almost equal parts: research and teaching. During a typical day, I teach for about an hour or so. This activity takes place in one of our classrooms here at NCSU and usually includes a combination of lecture slides, videos, and in-class discussion. About 30 students take my Structural Geology and Tectonics class; twenty students are enrolled in my Planetary Surfaces, Atmospheres, and Oceans course this semester. Most of the rest of my time is occupied with research, but even that description doesn’t capture the range of things even a normal day can bring. For example, a research scientist must keep abreast of the latest developments in her/his field, so I spend some time most days reading newly published scientific literature.

Spaceship! (ESA BepiColombo under construction at ESTEC, NL)

Scientists also commonly prepare research proposals to funding agencies in support of their research (including pay for graduate students) and so, if a funding deadline is near, I spend at least an hour or two most days on proposal writing. Writing academic articles is also a crucial part of the job, so if there’s not a funding proposal due then I try to write at least a section or two of a scientific manuscript. Importantly, graduate and undergraduate students are the lifeblood of a science department, and their mentoring an important part of a faculty member’s job. My lab consists of four graduate students and (at the moment) ten undergraduate students, so I invariably spend at least a little time each day talking and working with students. These discussions are among the best part of my job, and compliment my day-to-day interactions with undergraduate students in my class. (I also spend about 10% of my time doing what’s called “service”, which includes a vast range of activities from sitting on a departmental or university committee to reviewing the papers and proposals of other scientists, to helping organize scientific conferences. Depending on the person, some scientists love this side of the job and others hate it; depending on the day, I’m somewhere in between.)

Having said all this, you might notice that not very much of my time is spent doing actual research. This is something that really surprises me when I think of it: how much time it takes to think about and write up research findings, versus actually making those findings themselves. Depending on the type of work I’m doing, I can go several weeks between doing any dedicated research—though when I’m doing fieldwork, for example, I do little else but acquire brand new data. On a typical day, however, I try to spend about an hour actually finding out new things, which in my case involves analyzing spacecraft images of other planets, running computer models or laboratory experiments, or reviewing field measurements.

Tell us about your research

I am principally interested in why planets look the way they do. To that end, I use spacecraft images (as well as other types of remotely sensed data) to measure and understand the geological processes responsible for giving planets they appearances they have. Two of the most important geological processes that can shape a planet are tectonism and volcanism. In the first, stresses cause the outer, brittle shell of a planetary body to break—and this is the case whether that shell is made of rock or ice. Volcanism is essentially the transfer of heat from the inside of a planetary body to the outside, via the transport of molten material along conduits. So, tectonic processes deform the outer shell and produce fissures, rifts, and even large mountain ranges, whereas volcanic activity forms expansive plains of lava, volcanoes, and explosive pits. Much of what I do with spacecraft data involves mapping landforms and other surface characteristics in what we call a geographic information system, or GIS, which is a set of computer-based tools widely used in lots of different types of academic and industry research.

I also use computer models of how brittle materials deform in response to stress to figure out the forces required to produce large tectonic landforms on other planets. These models are critical for telling us what happened in the past and enable us to make predictions for what landforms could form in the future. I couple this numerical work with physical experiments in the laboratory: I use boxes of sand, together with mathematical scaling relations, to simulate deformation on rocky and icy surfaces that computer models can’t easily replicate. Combining numerical and physical experimental data is a potent tool for understanding the stresses to which a particular planetary surface was exposed, which in turn tells us a lot about the interior make-up and processes that must have been at play to form these surfaces in the first place—something we have no other way of knowing for most other planetary bodies, at least for now.

Fieldwork (Craters of the Moon, ID)

Finally, I carry out fieldwork at several sites across the U.S. and abroad that we regard as analogs to landforms or landscapes on other planets and moons. In the past, fieldwork consisted largely of taking detailed measurements at outcrops with a compass clinometer, notebook, and hand lens, with context provided by aerial photography or satellite data where available. Nowadays we use these same tools, but we can augment them with high-resolution two- and three-dimensional image and topographic data acquired with drones, which are becoming increasingly affordable and powerful. Online tools such as Google Earth also represent a major step forward in linking very small scales, (i.e., huge areas) with large-scale observations, i.e., those taken at a single mapping area, location, or even outcrop.

What are some of the biggest challenges in your field?

This might seem obvious, but the single biggest challenge of what I do is that I can’t visit the places I study! We have sent people to the Moon, robotic spacecraft to all of the major bodies in the Solar System, and have samples from a handful of places, but in planetary science, we still rely overwhelmingly on telescopic and orbital imaging. This is why comparative planetology is such a powerful tool: we can take the limited insight we have for one body, compare its landforms, bulk properties, and physical characteristics with another, well-characterized world, and come to a better understanding of them both. But it’s still a challenge to study in detail places for which we have very little data, such as the moons of Uranus and Neptune, and even with all the missions that have visited Mars, say, we’ve still only scratched the surface (figuratively and literally) of that alien planet.

More prosaically, getting the funds necessary for a fully-fledged research group can be a difficult task. There are many scientists at work every day in the U.S., and although that’s a very good thing for the country there’s rarely enough money from federal, state, and private sources to support them all. It’s an ongoing effort to secure the money necessary to build and maintain a lab, pay graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, and cover the expenses associated with travel for fieldwork, collaboration, and scientific meetings. It’s something that’s well worth doing, but many planetary scientists spend much more of their time than they would like looking for money.

One additional challenge in my field, though by no means limited to planetary science, is ensuring that female students, postdoctoral researchers, and professional scientists are given the same opportunities to participate, grow, and shine as their male counterparts. Historically, the field of planetary science has been dominated by older, male, white scientists, with little by way or gender or ethnic diversity, for example. The situation is improving, but only slowly, as considerably fewer than 50% of the field is at present female. I take my duty to mentor students and younger colleagues of both genders very seriously, and I do my best to advocate for diversity, equal opportunities, and support for scientists from under-represented groups.

UAV ops (Phantom 4 check-out flight at Jockeys Ridge State Park, NC)

What advice do you have to those pursuing a career in your field?

First and foremost, I advise any prospective scientist to choose a topic that really interests you—that will motivate you even when you hit a setback like a failed experiment or a rejected grant proposal. It’s a little trite to say “do what you love”—that’s not possible for everyone—but if you at least really like what you do, it makes the difficult aspects of this profession much more bearable.

On a related note, perseverance is critical for any scientist, whether you study planets or anything else. Most papers require considerable revision before they’re accepted for publication; most grant proposals are rejected on the first go; most graduate school, postdoctoral, and faculty job applications don’t go anywhere. But with sustained effort, that paper is accepted; that grant is funded, and that job does come your way. It takes time, patience, and practice, but these are skills that will serve well any scientist, in any field.

More specifically, if you want to become a planetary scientist, look for any opportunities to get involved with planetary-themed research as early in your education as you can. NASA runs lots of different intern programs each year, particularly in the summer, as do several other planetary research institutions. When a planetary scientist visits your school, university, or neighborhood, talk with them about their particular path, what they recommend you do, and whom you could reach out to for educational and research opportunities. Take as much math- and science-based courses in school and at university as you can, and keep up to date with developments and findings in the broad and exciting topics that constitute planetary science. Don’t be afraid to email scientists at research centers and universities across the country to ask their advice and tell them of your interest; they may not be able to have you join their classes or their labs, but they might know someone who could. And above all, remain optimistic, positive, and motivated even when you’re not making much headway in classes or research. Success in any field is in no small part down to grit (mixed with a little luck), and that’s as true for planetary science as it is for any discipline—it just so happens that what we do is one of the coolest things to do there is and makes for some great lines at parties!

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