We are delighted to be hosting Dr Helen Maynard-Casely on Real Scientists this week. Helen is a planetary scientist working on modelling planet formation using a combination of complex advanced chemistry, crystallography and X-ray diffraction. With her tweeting stint looming, I visited Helen at her work place – the Australian Synchrotron. Let’s face it, I hardly needed an excuse. We sat down over a cup of [preferred caffeinated beverage] to talk about her work as a scientist and as a communicator at the Royal Institution, London.
Helen has a PhD in Physics, from the University of Edinburgh and a degree in Planetary Science from University College London. Despite this, or maybe because of it, she is still aiming to be an astronaut when she grows up. Not only loving doing science, Helen also likes to share what she’s up to. She writes the ‘Shores of Titan’ Column for The Conversationand can often be spotted at science festivals. For the other 51 weeks of the year she tweets at @Dr_HelenMC.
Helen is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Australian Synchrotron where she’s been for the last year and a half. Her research interests centre about considering simple molecules as planetary-forming materials (as they are in the solar system at Jupiter and beyond); where she seeks to extract fundamental physical parameters from diffraction data. What does this mean? Diffraction is a way of playing with light. When you see the iridescence of butterflies and feathers, that’s diffraction in action. It’s using grooves in a material to fractionate the light, as it were. Collecting and interpreting diffraction patterns enables us to figure out the properties of the object in question. The same principle is used to underpin a broad range of techniques in science, such as methods used for determining the structure of biological molecules like proteins, which keeps many of the Synchrotron’s beamlines and busy beavering biologists busy.
As you may gather, it’s somewhat difficult to get billowing exploding masses of distant star stuff into Clayton in Melbourne to point a Synchrotron beamline at – there’s not much parking on site due to construction work, for starters – so much of Helen’s work revolves around recreating the extreme conditions of heat, cold and pressure of these alien environments in situ to investigate the structural goings on. One thing that particularly motivates her is changes in crystal structure that occur as you delve deeper into a planets interior. Her current work is leading to a greater understanding of the geology of the outer solar system, and then examining how these results can be applied here on Earth.
Before moving to Australia she worked in the UK at the Royal Institution of Great Britain as the Christmas Lecturer’s researcher, helping plan and design experiments for the Lectures. Here she learned, among many things, how to fill a balloon with 10 kg of jelly, how to look after a colony of leaf cutter ants, and how to train a flea.
I asked Helen about her time as a flea wrangler.
“Fleas haven’t been on television for forty years,” she said. “I had to hunt down the last person known to be able to wrangle fleas – a guy who was a student at Cambridge.”
That’s right. There are trained flea circus directors. So if you’ve got a scientific itch to scratch, be sure to follow Helen’s week on RealScientists.