Postdoc Spotlight: Geochemist Bradley Peters

Sunrise over Piton des Neiges, an extinct stratovolcano rising more than 10,000 feet above the Indian Ocean on La Réunion. Photo courtesy Bradley Peters.
Sunrise over Piton des Neiges, an extinct stratovolcano rising more than 10,000 feet above the Indian Ocean on La Réunion. Photo courtesy Bradley Peters.
Monday, October 30, 2017 

Bradley Peters never really thought of becoming a scientist. By the end of high school, he had practically divorced science, as he chose to take two science classes as a sophomore only to avoid science classes during his senior year.

But after entering college as an international relations major, Peters took an introductory geology course. The fact that geology seemed uniquely tangible got him interested in the field and now, as a DTM Postdoctoral Fellow, he uses chemistry as a tool to study the characteristics and history of our planet.

In this Postdoc Spotlight, Peters tells us about his passion for geochemistry, the journey through DTM, and his aspirations as a young scientist.

DTM Postdoc Bradley Peters standing on Devil's Thumb over Lake Agnes (left) and Lake Louise (right), Alberta, Canada. 

What exactly do you do?

I primarily study igneous rocks, which are rocks that crystallized directly from lava or magma. The practical aspects of my job include breaking down rocks to determine their chemical makeup, and then using this information to determine the origins of the lavas or magmas that formed that rock. Because magmas come from deep within the Earth, they contain vital information about the interior layers of the Earth. My work satisfies a natural curiosity about Earth and where it came from. Chemistry is a powerful tool to learn not only about Earth's present, but also about its distant past, and my work can help us learn about the conditions that prevailed on Earth millions or billions of years ago.

Why do you do it?
Studying Earth science is gratifying to me because it allows me to ask and answer questions about things I experience in my daily life. There are many branches of science that deal with fascinating but intangible environments. The work in these fields is equally important, but for me, studying Earth science spurs me to ask questions about things I encounter directly. I might ask myself, "Why is that hill there? Is it an ancient volcano? Is there a fault line there? What did that hill look like a million years ago?" Encountering my research directly makes it more accessible, and ultimately drives me to keep asking questions about our Earth.

Why is your work important?
There are a lot of answers to the question, "how did we get here?" Geology provides one way to evaluate the context of that question. The relationship between human conditions and geology is evident when we consider the geographic distribution of key human concerns like poverty, democracy, biodiversity or climate. Certainly, geochemistry can't provide all the answers, but it can help us understand the relationship between mineral resources and impoverishment, agricultural productivity and representative government, volcanism and biological evolution, or plate tectonics and monsoon cycles. There was a freshman seminar were I went to college called "Geology is destiny," and it was amazing in how many ways that's true. I don't provide the answers to all these questions, but my work can provide one piece of the puzzle. Our Earth resulted from a series of well-placed, but possibly inevitable circumstances that arose early in the history of our solar system. My work, focusing on geochemical vestiges of the earliest history of the Earth, can help us understand the processes that led to the present day: The formation of the core, which gave rise to our magnetic field, or the formation of continental crust, which gave rise to land-based life.

As a geochemist, what's your ultimate goal?
I think my ultimate goal is to keep having ideas and to keep asking questions. Some of the best scientists in our history asked more questions than they provided solutions. I think the humility that asking questions gives us also makes us better educators and mentors, and drives us to accept the monotony that sometimes characterizes the most important scientific research. That's not particularly lofty or specific, but it's what keeps me moving forward.

How did you first hear about DTM? What brought you here?
I had a Ph.D. committee member who was a DTM postdoc. After learning about the department through him, I began to realize that there were many geochemists whose work I respect who had passed through DTM as postdocs. I like to tell people that postdoctoral research is a "specialty" of Carnegie or DTM in that it is uniquely positioned to give us the skills we need to be independent researchers in a variety of job settings. Now that I'm here, it's hard to imagine doing my postdoc anywhere else.

DTM Postdoc Bradley Peters leaving the Pacific catchment for the Atlantic while moving to Washington, DC

What projects are you working on now at DTM?
I've sent out my feelers a little ways and I'm working with a few staff scientists to use a variety of geochemical techniques that answer questions about the origins of the Réunion hotspot, a volcanic island chain in the Indian Ocean. Much work has been done on the geochemistry of other hotspots, in particular Hawai'i and Iceland. But many smaller volcanic hotspots could be gateways to learning more about the Earth. I'm also in a unique position to benefit from a diverse geochemical expertise, which means that I'm intentionally crafting projects that will expand by geochemical "toolbox" and will hopefully make me a more versatile researcher in the future.

What has been your favorite project?
My favorite projects are always the ones I'm working on right now. A disappointing aspect of science for me is that, if you're growing as a scientist, you always look back on your previous projects and know exactly what you could have done better. For me, my comfort zone is at the frontier, looking forward to the next dataset to analyze and learning with my peers as they do their own research.

What research do you hope to pursue at your next job?
Until now I've primarily studied volcanic "hotspot" environments, but I'm looking forward to doing work on other volcanoes with similar origins but different stories to tell. For example, I've recently proposed to do work on volcanoes that erupt very close to the famous Ring of Fire volcanoes, but are genetically distinct and have unique geochemical characteristics.

Where do you see yourself in 20 years? What's your dream job?
Retired... just kidding! But I'm not going to be one of those academics that holds on well past retirement age. I know I won't retire at 50 but as long as I keep thinking about how nice that would be, I'll keep myself in check and remember that there is more to life than just research. My dream job, which I really hope to have in 20 years, is one that will be OK with that philosophy.

Who is the most memorable scientist you've ever met?
I didn't "meet" him, but I did see Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at the Boston Museum of Science once. To me, one measure of great scientists is not losing touch with the fact that the rest of the world doesn't think about science every day. Believe me, it's really easy to do that.

If you could meet one of your science icons, dead or alive, who would it be?
Marie and Pierre Curie. Think about how many scientists are willing to risk their lives for their research. That isn't me, but I know that we wouldn't be where we are today without people like the Curies, whose work had a profound impact on not only Earth science, but many scientific fields.