We’re delighted to introduce our next curator, Dr Gwyneth Gordon, Research Scientist, Arizona State University. Gwyneth (@gwynnotpaltrow) started out studying hydrothermal reactions near a gold deposit in east Greenland. She then trained as an isotope geochemist, studying the elemental and isotope budget of osmium, a platinum group metal, moved in the modern oceans, atmosphere, rivers and soils. She transitioned to studying non-traditional stable isotopes of redox sensitive metals (molybdenum, iron, uranium) might allow us to understand the early oxidation history of the Earth. She’s now applying these same tools to modern humans – using calcium isotopes as a monitor of bone mineral balance in astronauts and cancer patients, and identifying where people were born and lived in a forensic context. The central theme of her research is applying the isotope tools developed in geology to as many cool applications as she can think of. We asked her our usual questions and here she is, in her own words.
I always enjoyed science in high school. Growing up, our family took lots of driving trips across the US, visiting all the National Parks and camping out. My father wanted to study geology, but decided he couldn’t support a family doing science, so he became a lawyer instead. However, he instilled in me a love of the outdoors and nature, and a desire to understand how things came to be as they are.
I tried out physics, but didn’t feel comfortable in the department. I knew I wanted to study science, and the Geology Department was desperate for undergraduate majors. They offered an all expense paid trip to hike the Grand Canyon for spring break, even if you weren’t a major. Who could ask for better – hiking the Grand Canyon with professional geologists? I was hooked.
My field of study is isotope geochemistry. My earlier studies focussed on understanding the mobility of elements in the natural environment, using naturally occurring isotopes to trace the sources and pathways in the ocean, rivers and soils. However, I’ve become interested in applying these same isotope tools to more modern problems. I’m working on using a variety of different isotope systems in biomedicine and forensics. I’m funded by NASA to work on calcium isotopes as a monitor of bone mineral balance in astronauts – now applying this technique for cancer patients when cancer metastasizes to bone. I’m also funded by the Department of Justice to study isotopes at two Body Farms to trace where people were born and lived – particularly so we can identify corpses found without identification.
Why should the public care about your work?
I’m hoping to help evaluate treatments for cancer and figure out who homicide victims are. Who wouldn’t care about that?
I believe everyone is born a scientist. Developing, testing hypotheses and doing experiments is how we learn about the world. That new diet you’re on? – that’s an experiment with yourself before the dietary change as a control. The concepts I deal with on a daily basis in isotope geochemistry – mass balance, material moving from one reservoir to another, chemical reactions – are at their heart very simple. Working from simple concepts to very cool applications is something everyone does every day – people just don’t always realize that’s what they’re doing. I don’t think science is reserved for academic scientists.
For the last five years, I’ve been volunteering once a week with the Mesa Police Department Forensic Services Department as a Volunteer Crime Scene Specialist. I process property crime scenes, from residential, vehicle and commercial burglaries, criminal damage and minor accidents. I am certified to photograph the scene, process for latent prints, collect DNA swabs, collect evidence and do comparative shoeprint photography. I’ve collected more than a dozen AFIS hits (matching fingerprints at a scene to a known person in the database) and several CODIS hits (matching DNA to someone in the felony database). It may be the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
Hobbies Include: Cooking -it’s a great application of chemistry!. Talking to random people on the bus to learn about their lives. You never know where ideas from one source will cross-fertilize ideas from another.
Ideal Day Off: Taking my dogs on a long walk by the canal. Having a nice lunch with my husband at our favorite Italian deli. Reading a trashy novel and seeing a movie.
Please welcome Gwyneth Gordon to Real Scientists!