Postdoc Spotlight: Planetary Geologist Elizabeth Frank

Elizabeth Frank
Elizabeth Frank hiking across a cooled lava lake in Hawai'i.

Despite her "inconclusive" results when attempting to duplicate the famous Miller-Urey experiment for her high school science fair project, DTM MESSENGER associate Elizabeth Frank's interest in outer space was instantly sparked, leading her on a path to discover her dual passions for astrobiology and geology and becoming the planetary geologist she is today.

We asked Frank about from where her passion for planetary geology originated and what research she'll be pursuing in her next, sci-fi movie-inspired job, mining near-Earth asteroids for their water and platinum group elements.

DTM MESSENGER fellow Elizabeth Frank holding a sample of martian meteorite ALH84001 at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. 

DTM: When did you first become interested in your field of research? Why? 

Elizabeth Frank: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a doctor. (Now technically I am one, though in the words of a friend, not the kind that helps people.) Then as a sophomore in high school, I did a science fair project in which I naively tried to duplicate the Miller-Urey experiment, which was a famous attempt to create the building blocks of life. Despite my “inconclusive” results, I won second place, and my interest in astrobiology was sparked. 

In college, I stumbled upon my passion for geology and realized I could merge it with astrobiology via planetary geology. So for my Ph.D., I worked on projects relevant to understanding the geochemical processes that go into making habitable planets. Although I now study Mercury, which is arguably the least habitable terrestrial planet in the Solar System, I’m still curious about astrobiology-related topics.

DTM: What research project(s) are you working on now at DTM?

Frank: I’m a science team member for the MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) mission, which was an exploration of the planet Mercury. I work on data from the X-Ray Spectrometer (XRS), which measured the abundances of important rock-forming elements on Mercury’s surface. At the beginning of my postdoc, MESSENGER was still active, so I was processing raw data to aid in mapping Mercury’s surface composition. 

Since the mission ended in April 2015, I’ve been working to understand what Mercury’s geochemistry means in the context of its geologic history. The primary way to do this is by comparing the XRS dataset to others from the mission. Additionally, I’ve been studying an area called the “high-magnesium region,” which has a very unique chemistry for reasons we don’t fully understand. Mercury has turned out to be a much more complicated planet than originally thought!

Here is a map of the Mg/Si ratio across Mercury’s surface based on data Frank works on from MESSENGER’s X-Ray Spectrometer (XRS). Red is high, and blue is low.

DTM: What excites you about your work? 

Frank: While MESSENGER was still orbiting Mercury, I could download the most recent raw data every day (after it had been calibrated by engineers). I loved that I could be the first person to see these squiggly lines from space (spectra) and extract brand-new knowledge of Mercury from them. This aspect of my work made me very excited about the technique of remote sensing for studying planetary surfaces, which has taken my career in an unexpectedly awesome direction.

DTM: What will you be doing at your next job?

Frank: In late April, I’ll start a new job in Redmond, WA at Planetary Resources, an ambitious start-up company that plans to mine near-Earth asteroids for their water and platinum group elements. They’re not just inventing the technology to do so; they’re also inventing the industry. To test their instruments and spacecraft, they’ll first observe Earth with a constellation of small satellites called Ceres and make measurements that are of interest to various companies and research institutes. I’ll join the team as a geospatial analyst to establish a pipeline for this data and, eventually, the data that will be returned during asteroid missions. Additionally, I will analyze the Ceres data based on customers’ needs, which will draw upon skills I learned from working with MESSENGER datasets. 

Frank hiking across a cooled lava lake in Hawai'i. 

DTM: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 20?

Frank: Certainly within 10 years, Planetary Resources will have already visited a near-Earth asteroid with a “prospecting” spacecraft. In 20 years, if we haven’t already, we should be close to mining it for water, which can be used for rocket fuel and human missions. While many people at the company have backgrounds relevant to space exploration, I’ll be the first planetary geologist on staff. My expertise in planetary geochemistry and experience with MESSENGER while at DTM will no doubt prove to be invaluable. Planetary Resources does plan on sharing data with scientists, so I hope to remain connected to the planetary science community! 

DTM: Any other interesting anecdotes you want to share? 

Frank: In college, my first research experience was in a geochemistry lab. Within two weeks, I accidentally started a fire there. (It was very small, and no one was hurt.) Since that research experience, most of my work has been computer-based. I’m not sure if those things are related.

Elizabeth Frank
Personal Website

Interview by Robin Dienel, 7 April 2016

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