Aine O'Brien

I’m Aine, a third-year PhD student studying Planetary Science and Astrobiology, supervised by Dr Lydia Hallis and Professor Martin Lee. I am studying organic molecules in martian meteorites, trying to help us understand whether Mars was ever habitable. I studied for an undergraduate degree in Physics with Astrophysics, then taught high school Physics and Astronomy for three years, before starting my PhD at GES.

I really wanted to move to Scotland, so that made the first part of the decision easy. I applied to Glasgow because I could see that world class planetary science research was taking place in the area I was interested in. I also spoke to a friend who was already studying in the school of Geographical and Earth Sciences, to ask them what the school was like and about my potential supervisors. My friend was really positive about the vibe of the department, so I was pretty sold as I trusted them pretty fully!

I’ve been really lucky during my PhD in having quite a bit of flexibility in the research I can do and where I can do it. My PhD is funded by a School scholarship, the Angus Mitchell Award. Not being tied to a research council has its advantages: I can adapt what I’m researching, according to what others are publishing, as I go along, as there’s no specific stipulated output in terms of research area. Not being research council funded does mean a little less access to funds for my research and travel, however, my supervisors, and the school as a whole, have been super supportive of me in applying for grants both from the University and elsewhere. I’ve been lucky enough to receive grants from the Royal Astronomical Society, the Geological Society of London, the Global Aerospace Summit, the Barringer Meteor Company, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, SAGES, STFC, and even a crowdfunded grant from a Mars podcast’s listener base!

In the second month of my PhD I travelled to Washington D.C. for a week with my supervisor, to work with Dr Andrew Steele at the Carnegie Institute of Washington, a world expert in my field. Since then, I’ve returned to Washington twice for further research visits, all supported by University/School grants. I’ve also spent two weeks working at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History, in DC, thanks to a memorandum of understanding between the University of Glasgow and the Smithsonian. This was an awesome experience, working behind the scenes with their meteorite collection, finding out what curators' jobs are like, and getting to use their high class equipment.

I was really nervous, starting my PhD, about moving from astrophysics to planetary science, as I didn’t really know any geology. To aid with this, I’ve tried to attend lots of conferences and training days and my supervisory team are really supportive of me finding and applying for these extra opportunities. I’ve also been lucky enough to attend conferences and workshops (fully funded by grants) in Abu Dhabi, Houston, Moscow and Heidelberg, to name a few! The Planetary Science community in the UK is awesome, in Scotland alone we have our own planetary science network, SPERO, and in the UK as a whole the UK Planetary Forum, through which I’ve built an additional support network of peers.

Beyond my actual research, training and conference attendance, I’ve been able to get involved with loads of education, outreach and science communication. Having had a background in teaching, I was keen to be involved in departmental teaching. I’m a tutor for first year Earth Science students and second year Geography students. This has been a great experience, as it’s helped me consolidate my own knowledge of the subject, whilst utilising my teaching skills. There’s been heaps of opportunities for outreach and science communication through activities like the Glasgow Science Centre Space Lates, STEM in the Gorbals, Pint of Science, and I’ve even been on national television, a couple of podcasts and in the Wall Street Journal, all thanks to my PhD!