Podcast: 5 minutes with Jen Mitchell
We are pleased to announce the new Geoscientist podcast, 5 Minutes With, where Marissa Lo (Assistant Editor) chats to different geoscientists about their work, day-to-day activities, and career advice. This month, we speak to Dr Jen Mitchell at the University of Plymouth, UK.
Dr Jen Mitchell, Technical Specialist, University of Plymouth
[00:10] Marissa Lo: Hello and welcome to 5 Minutes With, a podcast by Geoscientist magazine. My name is Marissa Lo and today I’m joined by Dr. Jen Mitchell from the University of Plymouth. So, thanks very much for joining, Jen. Can you please tell me about your work with electron microscopy and meteorites?
[00:24] Jen Mitchell: So, I’m a technical specialist, so what that means is I use my expertise in electron microscopy, and I apply that to whatever people bring to me. So, if you imagine a light microscope you might have used at school, where you have a light bulb and you’re looking at your sample through a series of lenses. Electron microscopy you can think of in a similar way, but instead of using a light bulb, we’re using a high-powered beam of electrons. We could be using anywhere up to sort of 5000 volts, 30000 volts, depending on what sort the sample is. And what that does it means we can look at things that are much, much smaller, but we can add in some extra things, we can have detectors that tell us what the composition is at different points, have detectors telling us what angle things are pointing in. So, it’s a really, really versatile tool that we can apply to basically every field of science. As long as it is solid and you don’t want it alive by the end of it, you can put it in an electron microscope and you’ll learn something about it. So, while my work is focused on meteorites, in my own personal research, a lot of what I do is looking at samples that companies bring in or things that students bring to us to analyse. And I spend a lot of my time doing work for commercial clients, but also teaching. So, our goal is to get as many people familiar with electron microscopy in the University as we can, but to also provide our services to everybody else. In our spare time, we get to do our own research. We’re very, very fortunate in our lab that we get to do that. As you said, I work on meteorites, so I use electron microscopy to look at mineral compositions and sort of the textures of these minerals, and I use that to reconstruct igneous and metamorphic processes that were happening billions of years ago, on an asteroid millions of kilometers away. And it’s really good fun. I’m very, very lucky to have this job.
[01:51] Marissa Lo: Fantastic. Can you please tell me about your project Microscopy Live?
[01:56] Jen Mitchell: Microscopy Live is our public facing outreach event. So, it’s the brainchild of our faculty director, Dr. Natasha Stephen, and it’s currently hosted by myself and my colleague, Chesca. And what we’re doing is bringing you an hour of real science in real time. So, we’re sort of lifting the lid on the mystery that is what happens in the lab and what happens inside these magic science boxes. So, it’s aimed at the general public, but it’s open to everyone, so it’s child safe. We enjoy having academics come and join us in the chat as well, so you get to talk to us whilst we’re doing things. And depending on which instrument we’re using, we can also give control over to the audience. We can let other people drive the microscope remotely through Zoom, which for us is great fun, we love seeing that and let people collect their own data.
It’s the last Friday of every other month. We will be doing November, January, March this year, and the goal is to try and look at as many different things as possible. We’ve done everything from meteorites to pet hair to ice cream, and we’re going to be looking at fungus and we’re trying to cover as many things as possible and just sort of have fun with it. And so far it’s going really well. We’re taking it on the road, we’ve got a portal SEM and we’re going to Dartmore Zoo to do a couple of days with them, and we’ve taken it to other places. We’re hoping to get schools involved as well, and do a Microscopy Live road show eventually, which will be really exciting for us.
[03:03] Marissa Lo: Amazing. So what does a typical day look like for you?
[03:06] Jen Mitchell: They vary quite a lot. It kind of depends on what samples we’ve been brought in. So, if we’ve got a company that’s come in with some stuff, we try and get everything done within ten working days. It’s a case of do the analysis, work out what’s going to work, what isn’t going to work, get the reports written up for them. If we’ve got students coming in, we make sure that they’re all set up and they’re using everything safely. And if there’s nothing happening in the microscopes, that’s when we do our own research or we can just play around and try new things, learn new things. And we’ve got a load of new instruments recently, so we’re still getting to grips with all their little character quirks, but also just learning new techniques. Myself and some colleagues were teaching ourselves how to use all the other instruments that we have and all the new detectors that we have.
[03:42] Marissa Lo: So what is your favourite thing about your job?
[03:44] Jen Mitchell: It’s probably just the sheer amount of things I get to look at. Since joining the lab, I’ve looked at everything from, well, I’ve looked at ropes, I’ve looked at fiberglass, I’ve looked at rocks, I’ve got some mine ore on the way. Just the sheer amount of things that we get through and everything is surprisingly interesting in an SEM, actually. Even like the most flat, boring things you can think of, put them in an SEM, they are fascinating things. I think we’re just very, very lucky that we do have these connections with local businesses. We get to work with them but also with students and everyone else in the university, as well as external universities as well. We actually just get to cover a lot of stuff. So, it’s never a boring day in the lab, there’s always something to be done.
[04:19] Marissa Lo: And finally, what advice would you give to someone hoping to work in your field?
[04:23] Jen Mitchell: I would say making sure you retain that sort of hunger for knowledge, and make sure that you’re willing to drive yourself to learn new things, and to improve on stuff, and collaborate and work with other people. It’s very easy to get stuck doing the same thing over and over again, but, electron microscopy in particular, and working in a technical role, there are so many other people that you’re working with, and there’s so many different facets to it that I think just sticking to one thing would be very self-limiting. And it’s fun, it’s really good fun. I think as long as you enjoy it and you can find that little part of it that you really, really love, and then just drive yourself towards that, I think that’s the best thing you can do.
[04:57] Marissa Lo: Amazing. Thanks so much for joining us today, Jen, and see you at the next Microscopy Live.