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Research

Space Dust and Doughnuts

Michelle Thompson unlocks the mysteries of the universe with space dust – and Timbits

By Ian Coutts

Michelle Thompson (Artsci’11, Sc’11) holds up what appears to be a honey dip Timbit in her left hand. “Here is a planetary body like the moon,” she says. Slightly higher up, in her right hand, she holds a chocolate Timbit.

“We have other rocks that are hurtling through space that are called micrometeorites,” she says, and with a “pow” sound jams the chocolate Timbit into honey dip…”

It’s a light-hearted demonstration of Dr. Thompson’s field of study (and an appropriately patriotic one for someone who dedicated her PhD thesis to “the country of Canada”), but it gets to the gist of her work as a planetary scientist and post-doctoral fellow at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

[illustration of galaxy]

Dr. Thompson studies what happens to rocks in the moon or other planetary bodies when they are hit by micrometeorites, irradiated by solar wind, or affected in other ways, a process known as solar weathering. The Queen’s graduate is helping explore our solar system and expand our knowledge of it – all while working in a lab on Earth.

Dr. Thompson didn’t have a clear idea of what she wanted to study when she arrived at Queen’s as an undergraduate student, initially choosing geology, then switching to geological engineering and biology. It was while listening to Professor Ron Peterson – “my first mentor,” she says – give a guest lecture on Mars in one of her classes that she had her revelation. “After the lecture I approached him, and said, ‘I want to work with rocks from space.’” In response, Dr. Peterson arranged for an internship paid for by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada that enabled Dr. Thompson to study a meteorite for two summers in conjunction with a researcher at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Dr. Thompson had found her passion. Graduating with a double degree in biology and geological engineering in 2011, she went on to study planetary science at the University of Arizona, where she earned her PhD in 2016. That led to her post-doctoral work at the Johnson Space Center, where she works with geological material brought back to Earth from asteroids and the moon. More recently, she accepted a tenure-track position in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University in Indiana where she will start working in summer 2018.

“I think the thing at Queen’s that really put me on this path was being immersed in a culture of excellence. Everyone at Queen’s is so passionate and so motivated to be the best at whatever it is they do. That really encouraged me to find what I was most passionate about.”

Dr. Thompson is looking forward, she says, to carrying on with her work at Purdue and helping “put students on the pathway to research.” She does, however, harbour one big ambition: to become an astronaut. In fact, in the last round of Canadian Space Agency selections in 2017 she made it to the final 32 before being eliminated. “But if anything,” she says, “that only gave me more motivation to try again.” If it doesn’t happen though, she says she would be perfectly happy to carry on with her work: “I get to play with space dust all day.”

[astronaut illustration]
Illustrations by Christine Jamieson