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Chris Herd

Assistant Professor
Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
University of Alberta
Alberta, Canada

When did you first become interested in rocks?

About as long ago as I can remember.  My dad being a geologist, I was introduced to rock collecting from an early age.  I used to collect pebbles from the gravel at the end of our driveway.  I think I still have those somewhere...  Later on, I would tag along on field trips with my dad, collecting crystals of quartz or big sheets of mica from some of the localities in eastern Ontario and western Québec.  And throughout my childhood my dad would go to rock and mineral shows.  I would sometimes get to go along, but if I didn't, then he would at least bring me back a sample of something new for my collection.  I had lots of favorite rocks, the biggest and best (the most unusual ones, with the biggest crystals or brightest colors) being my favorites at the time -- these are the usual criteria for boys!

What were your favorite subjects in school?

Geology wasn't offered in grade school, so I guess it was General Science, Chemistry and Physics in high school that I liked the most.  I was in a couple of advanced science classes with a really creative and knowledgeable teacher.  Chemistry and Physics I liked because I could grasp the concepts and see how they potentially related to the real world.

Were any subjects particularly difficult for you?

There weren't any subjects until University that were particularly difficult for me.  In grade school, I really didn't like French class, but that was because I was put in French immersion in Grade 6.  All of a sudden everything -- Geography, Literature, Math -- was in French.  I appreciate it now because I'm essentially bilingual.  As for other courses, I was pretty indifferent to some subjects, like Math, but found English class to be really quite boring, because I didn't see how it applied to the real world.  Since I knew I wanted to go into Geology, I didn't see the point.  In retrospect, however, what I learned in English class, especially in terms of allegorical literature and analogy, has served me well ever since, in many aspects of my life, science included.

If you're still wondering what subject I found difficult in University, it's Astrophysics.  I took a 2nd Year Astrophysics as an elective in 4th Year.  It's the only course in which I got less than an A.  I would say it's partly because it was so computationally intense, and partly because I had so much else going on at the time, especially the research for my Honours project.

What types of activities did you enjoy as a child?

I did a lot of reading, thanks to my mom, who is a librarian.  Otherwise, the usual -- play-fighting with my brother in the yard, building forts in the basement with every couch cushion we could find, playing with toys like GI Joe, Star Wars -- that type of thing.  I loved LEGO, however, and would spend hours and hours on evenings and weekends building.  We had a whole town, with trains and roads and ships and the rest.  And space LEGO, too.  Leave it to LEGO to finally combine two of my favorite toys into Star Wars LEGO, and start their Mars series after I had grown up!  I've wondered if I could justify buying the LEGO Mindstorms Mars Lander system with my research grant... probably not.

When did you first acquire a passion for science?

I've already mentioned my dad, who was a huge influence on me.  Much of my appreciation for rocks and minerals comes from him.  Also, Mr. Khoja, who made it fun and pushed me to learn as much as I could about science.  But I actually developed a passion for science over the course of the Honours Thesis work in undergrad, and the Ph.D. work in grad school.  That's when I really came to appreciate and love the process of science -- the curiosity, the art of expressing what it is you want to know, the acquisition of the right information, the interpretation, and then the expression of the results to the community.  So it was my undergraduate thesis advisor, Ron Peterson at Queen's University, and my Ph.D. advisor, Jim Papike at the University of New Mexico, that imparted a lot of that to me.  Much of that process was personal, however -- I mean, I had to experience it and learn it myself, but these advisors really fostered that type of growth.

What path did you take to arrive at a career in comparative planetology?

My love for rocks and minerals collided with my love for reading around the age of 13 or so.  I had started reading Isaac Asimov among other authors, but particularly Asimov's Foundation series.  The entire worlds that they described -- other planets around other stars -- were inspiring.  So I started to imagine what it would be like to study the geology of another planet, and wondered what rocks would look like that came from another planet, with big differences from Earth -- a different atmosphere, different gravity, different composition and different amount of water.  I made it a long-term goal to be among the first to study rocks brought back from Mars.  I got a good grounding in Geological Sciences at Queen's, with lots of summer work experience as a field assistant in the Canadian Arctic, and then had to decide on a grad school.  The main factor in my decision to go to UNM was the meteorite collection there and the access they had to the martian meteorites.  Although I started in the Master's program there, I switched to the Ph.D. program after one year, because I liked the project so much.  I graduated with the Ph.D. in 2001, at the age of 27, only four years after finishing my undergrad.  After that, I got a postdoctoral research position at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, which allowed me to work with some of the best researchers in the world that have expertise in martian meteorites, lunar samples, and other planetary samples.  I got my current job by demonstrating that I knew enough about Geology to be able to teach traditional Geology courses, but that, in addition, I bring a planetary perspective to the program.

What do you do on your job?

My job, like any other in academia, is a mix of teaching and research.  I am in the midst of teaching a 2nd Year Mineralogy course, which I am enjoying very much.  The trick now is to find the balance between those duties and the research.  I take a two-pronged approach to martian meteorites: I study the martian meteorite sample using mainly Electron Microprobe and Ion Probe instruments, and then I do experiments using synthetic mixtures that match the compositions of the martian meteorite under study.  The experiments reproduce the conditions under which the martian meteorites formed, specifically as magmas crystallizing into rocks at or near the martian surface.  So I can investigate this process in the lab, without having to use up scientifically valuable martian material, or go to Mars myself!  This combination of techniques can be very powerful.  The meteorites that I have studied so far come mainly from the Antarctic meteorite collection, with names like Queen Alexandria Range 94201 and Elephant Moraine 79001, but I have also looked at more familiar ones like Shergotty and Zagami.

I am still in the process of setting up my lab, and my research team consists of 'only me' for now, although some of my colleagues have experience with the same techniques.  I am also looking for graduate students to work on some of the projects, and that should happen in the next year or so.

What do you hope to be doing ten years from now?

In ten years, I would like to see a planetary materials research group that consists of several researchers and graduate students, that is strong enough and is supported by the best analytical resources available as to be internationally competitive for the study of returned martian samples.  Regardless of whether Mars Sample Return happens within ten years, I would like to see the expertise necessary to make significant and internationally-recognized contributions to this area of study.  Martian samples are not the only types of samples we can expect, either -- sample return missions are planned for comets, asteroids, and possibly the Moon again.  The University of Alberta Meteorite Collection, the second-largest in Canada, represents a great resource of planetary materials with which we can demonstrate these capabilities in the mean time.

What is the best part of a career in academia?

That's hard to say since I've only been at it for less than three months.  So far, it's the students.  When I feel like I have explained something to the students and that they have understood, then I know that I have passed something important on.  I look forward to having graduate students for the same reason.

If you could design a mission to Mars, what would you want to investigate?

Missions to Mars are designed and executed in a specific political context.  So, my answer would be different if you had asked me what type of mission I would design in the next ten years.  Since it seems more open-ended than that, I would design a human geological mission, modeled after Apollo 17.  On Apollo 17 you had the only geologist-astronaut to walk on another planet, Harrison Schmitt, on the lunar surface, and you had a support team back on Earth that included scientists with different expertise.  So I would design a mission that enabled a team of astronauts, including a geologist or two, to land on Mars, survey and explore an area of geologic and potential biologic interest for several days to weeks, then move to a different area and do the same thing, collecting samples along the way, of course.  So a series of geologic traverses across the planet, from the lava flows on the flanks of Olympus Mons, to the flat-lying layers in Valles Marineris, to impact craters that might have once held standing water, to volcanoes that have erupted under the polar ice sheets. (You notice I didn't commit to a specific place on Mars -- that's just too difficult to decide!)

How would you feel if a student reading this interview was inspired enough to follow in your footsteps?  What advice would you have for this student?

I would encourage the student to never lose their imagination.  Imagination is the root of the creativity that underlies the very foundation of science.  Set a pretty big goal for yourself, and then think of every seemingly tedious course you are required to take as a stepping stone toward that goal, and do the absolute best you can at it.  Even if the link is not obvious, focus on it as if achieving that goal depended on it.  Also, don't be afraid to change the goal or goals as you go, because you as a person will change and grow.  Lastly, don't be afraid to do things that might seem unattainable -- when applying for scholarships or to grad schools, include the "long shots".  Sometimes a long shot is the one thing that really comes through, and a door is opened that wasn't open before.

For those kids that are not interested in pursuing a career in science, I would say, "imagination is the root of the creativity that underlies the very foundation of science."  OK, maybe they wouldn't understand that statement entirely, but the point is that even if you don't make a career of it, science is, simply put, a method for satisfying curiosity.  That aspect can never be separated from our society without fundamentally altering it for the worse.  It could probably never really be done, because it would mean somehow disconnecting our imagination and curiosity.

Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?

"[We need] two distinct mental processes [to treat] such a question.  [First,] faithful observation of the data; [second,] that higher mental process in which in the constructive imagination comes into play, connecting separate facts with their common cause, and weaving them into an organic whole."

~ John Tyndall, Irish physicist in 1876

- 17 September 2003


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Last Updated:
18 September 2003

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