RET 2012 Blog: Gwen Jefferson
2012 RET Gwen Jefferson (right) and partner Dana Fields polish their sample holders.
Gwen Jefferson has been teaching kids for 24 years. For the last 14 years, shes been teaching high-school biology in Rialto, Calif. She has also raised four children.
Shes had a lifelong interest in both biology and psychology. In college, she started out in pre-med, then switched to psychology.
I just wanted to work with the mind, she says.
After graduating from college, she discovered that as a science teacher, she could not only work with the mind but also indulge her interests in biology.
Check back each week to see what Gwens been up to.
Final Post: July 20
As I come to the end of my RET program, I find myself thinking about how beneficial its been. One of the most important things Ive learned here is how to measure data using an inductively coupled plasma (ICP) mass spectrometer. It was data that no one had ever measured before: the trace elements in the Martian meteorite! We were able to record it onto a periodic table that shows most of the trace elements and their weights.
Our final activity was to produce a poster that gives information on our research project with results and conclusions. We produced graphs that show a relationship between two elements in the Martian meteorites.
Studying Martian meteorites has been especially exciting to me because Im a sci-fi buff, and I often wonder about the universe. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I got this bit of recent news: I was accepted to a three-day conference on Mars and the Martian rover Curiosity! Its at NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Some of the Curiosity mission members will be there to share stories, and we will get to see Curiositys anticipated landing at 10:31 p.m. on Aug. 5!
Overall, Ive learned that research in the real world is a vital part of our everyday life. Lab scientists answer many questions and solve many problems during their research. I plan to take this research atmosphere to my students, and maybe one day they will become a part of the scientific world that answers questions and solves problems.
My summer experiences here in Tallahassee have been extensive, thanks to CIRL Assistant Director Jose Sanchez and fellow RET Faith Shiver (our acting social director!). The RET program could help any teacher become a better teacher, and if I am able, I will apply again next summer!
This weeks blog entry takes on a Q & A format:
Q: How do you know a piece of rock found on Earth is a meteorite from Mars?
Scientists have gathered information about the atmosphere of Mars and the makeup of the rocks, or the groundcover, on Mars from the rovers that are up there.
Gwen Jefferson (left) and teacher Dana Fields (far right) hold up samples of a Martian meteorite. Their mentor is MagLab geochemist and Florida State University professor Munir Humayun (center).
No actual samples have ever been brought from Mars to Earth, but the rovers up there have gathered and transmitted a lot of information. (Two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were sent to Mars in 2003 and have been beaming back info and photos ever since.)
So when they find an individual meteorite here on Earth, they can examine it and determine its actual elements, and then they can compare that to the makeup of Mars. They can actually say, This came from Mars.
Q: Has anyone ever found anything from outer space that is totally alien — made up of material that has never been found here on Earth?
No. No! No one has ever found anything from outer space that doesnt also exist here on Earth. That surprised me. All the basic elements that are on the periodic table are what we find in the Martian rocks, just in different concentrations. Thats what makes the Martian rocks unique: They have different concentrations of the elements from the Earth rocks.
Now Im thinking of adding something about Mars into my ecology class, because one of the things my students can choose to do is to look at other planets and see if we could sustain life there. Because we may not be able to live on Earth one day. So thats how Im going to bring in Mars, as a place where we could possibly go one day.
Q: What are you doing right now?
Its been kind of exciting lately because weve been looking at a newer meteorite from Mars, one found in Africa, in Morocco, in 2009. We looked at the elements in it … because that tells you about the origin of when that particular rock was formed and how it was formed, and it even gives a picture of the universe and how it was formed.
We found some olivine in our sample … and aluminum and iron, which are two of the things Dr. Munir Humayun is looking for. Thats basically what weve been doing in the lab, putting together about 20 graphs of what we found in our samples. Just the practice alone was very helpful, very beneficial because I didnt know how to do all that.
Dr. Munir is going to go through the graphs with us and show us how to read them. And thats our last component. Because we know how to polish our samples, we know how get the data from the individual samples with the mass spectrometer, we even know how to find the right spots for the samples and how to put the data on an Excel spreadsheet and convert the data into graphs. But we need to learn how to interpret the graphs. Im really looking forward to learning that.
Gwen talks about the science she is learning and her social life:
This week, we began polishing two samples taken from Martian meteorites found in Africa and Los Angeles. Of course, being from California, I had to polish the one from Los Angeles! It took half a day, and was actually very tedious. That made me see firsthand that research has many boring and exciting components.
A peek at the magnet inside the mass spectrometer Jefferson is working with.
But while our half-day of polishing was tedious, the next day was more exciting. We got to see the inside of a complex machine that weve been working with, called an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS). That helped me to better understand how it worked. I saw the magnet inside and some of the other important parts.
To use this machine, you first need a polished microscopic sample of a Martian meteorite. The machine uses a laser and plasma torch to vaporize the sample into individual ions that can be quantified and shown on a graph.
We learned how to ignite the machines plasma torch and how the torch is sustained. Its kind of complicated, but here goes: The end of the torch is placed inside an induction coil supplied with an electric current. A flow of argon gas is introduced, and an electric spark is applied for a short time to introduce free electrons into the gas stream.
Accelerated electrons collide with argon atoms. The process continues until a plasma fireball is produced. The fireball consists mostly of argon atoms with a rather small fraction of free electrons and argon ions.
As technical as that process sounds, Prof. Munir Humayun has a way of breaking down the information using real life examples that makes it understandable.
After the plasma torch is ignited — which can take many tries — we calibrated the spectrometer. Then we took 10 measurements from each of the Martian meteorites using a laser to bore holes into the sample. The spectrometer reported the concentration of the ions to the computer, which organized the information by each element in an MS Excel document. Next week, well learn how to put the data into graphs.
The plasma in the mass spectrometer travels through a tube made from exceptionally pure glass that must be kept very clean.
Socially this week, the RETs (teachers) and the REUs (undergrads) went to St. George Beach where the water was so warm. The teachers, who stay in dorms at Florida State University, also went out together for dinner. Weve had very stimulating conversations about our students. We have teachers from elementary, middle schools and high schools, and we still share ideas and learn from each other.
RET coordinator Jose Sanchez has designed group meetings where one day we share a lesson that we taught, and one day we visit the labs where other RETs are working. This week we saw images from the MagLabs electron microscope and how 3D images can be made. This interested me because Ive only seen an electron microscope in a textbook, and the one we saw here didnt look the same. I attribute that to the textbook either showing a different one or it was out of date.
We also saw that the other group of RETs we visited had to polish their samples both with a polishing instrument and by hand, which again shows the tedious side of doing research. These RETs are investigating the performance of a wire embedded in another metal, and the exciting part of this day was seeing their samples on the electron microscope.
Next we will construct charts from the Martian meteorite, and we will go to a place called Painting with a Twist. Im looking forward to next weeks activities!
Gwen talks about coming to the lab and working with meteorite samples:
I am having one of the most exciting summers ever in the six-week program entitled Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory headquarters at Florida State University (FSU).
Under the direction of geochemistry Prof. Munir Humayun and Shuying Yang (a graduate student), my partner Dana Fields and I get to experience Mars! We use the most current technology to investigate Martian meteorites. We focus a laser on a sample meteorite from Mars and create a plume of smaller, ablated material that can be swept into a machine for analysis. The techniques we use are called laser ablation and Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS).
The first question that Dr. Humayun asked us was: If man has never been to Mars, then how did we get the Mars meteorite, and how do we know it came from Mars? After we discussed the question for awhile, we discovered that due to other meteorites hitting Mars, and due to the makeup of Mars atmosphere, part of the Mars surface went into space and eventually hit the Earths surface. But since meteorites hit the Earths surface continually, then how do we know which ones came from Mars?
Heres how: Thanks to the NASA space program, we have robots (rovers) on Mars that send back information about its atmosphere. Upon investigating different meteorites with the ICP-MS, scientists found that some of the samples had the same unique elements as the Mars atmosphere. Dr. Humayun told us that our mission — if we decided to accept it — was to perform a microanalysis of metal, sulfide and other phases in the chondrites (Mars meteorite) that will determine the origins of the samples, which were found in California, Northwest Africa, Antarctica and India. We accepted the mission. Then we learned how samples were prepared and started our investigation.
Now a little about myself: I teach biology at Wilmer Amina Carter High School in Rialto, California. I believe that science should be a positive learning experience for all students. In my efforts to provide unique experiences, I became a co-advisor for the science club and created a National Science Olympiad Team at Carter High School. The Science Olympiad teams mission is to increase participation and competency in hands-on science activities in a relaxed, safe and fun atmosphere. I endeavor to continue to be progressive in teaching science through the many programs available to enhance a science teachers science knowledge base. Recently I completed an eight-month (one Saturday a month) program at UCLA High School Nanoscience Program for Teachers, and now I am able to add more STEM-type labs to my biology curriculum.
When I first arrived on the FSU campus and began to learn more about it, I soon realized that this was the largest university campus that I have visited. One of the most unique aspects of FSU was the fact they have a circus course in which every aspect of a circus is taught, and an extra-curricular, collegiate circus that performs each spring! Then I toured the Magnet Lab and saw the largest magnet in the world and learned that many researchers from all over the world use it.
More to come as we continue on our research quest.
Gwen collaborated with science writer Kathleen Laufenberg on this blog. For more information about the MagLabs RET program contact Jose Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 645-0033.