Why Study This?

Why Study This?

I think of questions and then find the answers.

Her neighbor calls her "the mud lady," but Dr. Kitty Milliken does more than play in the dirt. She's a geologist--a scientist who studies the earth.

Geologists can investigate many things about the earth--both big and small, outdoors and inside. Some work "in the field", for instance, mapping the distribution of different kinds of rock. Kitty spends most of her time at the computer or the microscope. She studies tiny samples of mud and rocks to learn about the history of chemical reactions recorded there. "I'm still studying samples from the ocean floor I collected back in 1993," she says.

Studying rocks under a microscope might seem like an odd job at first, but Kitty's work has practical uses. You may not realize it but rocks have tiny pores, like the pores on your skin, which contain oil, gas, water and maybe microscopic life. "For that reason, oil companies sometimes fund my research. They're always trying to understand where to find pores in rocks," Kitty explains.

Kitty obviously loves all aspects of her job. Her main source of stress, she says, is "I keep choosing too many fun things to work on at the same time." That's the kind of "problem" at work most people would love to have!

What exactly do you do?

My main job responsibility is to do research. I think of questions then try to find the answers. I try to get someone (usually a government agency) to help fund the study, and afterwards, I spread the news by publishing papers and giving presentations to other geologists at conferences throughout the year. I also help to maintain the lab, keep the machines running and make sure that the sign-up system works smoothly for all the students. Finally, I help supervise graduate students [students seeking advanced degrees] and teach a course on how to use certain equipment.

What are you researching now?

I currently have a couple of projects. I'm studying carbonate cements (mineral-clogged pores) in gas reservoirs in a Rocky Mountain basin. In addition, I'm studying products of bacteria in rocks' pores. Geologists are beginning to realize that bacteria inhabit pores in rocks in an amazing variety of places, even miles deep in the ground. I'm trying to learn better ways of identifying the effects of such bacterial communities, both the tiny fossils they leave behind and the chemicals they produce in rocks.

What's the coolest part of your job?

I get to study nature and, on a really tiny scale, go exploring. Using the electron microscope, for instance, there is always the possibility of seeing something really new, something no one else has seen before.

What's your favorite part?

I like defending papers. Before a journal publishes a scientific paper, many other scientists review it to make sure that the study is sound and contributes something new. Sometimes they raise questions and you have to defend your work--your methods or conclusions and so on. I really enjoy that process. It's a fun sort of challenge and having a paper published in the end is very satisfying.

Please describe a funny incident that happened at work.

Once I was at a geological conference where I met some of my European colleagues for the first time. They were surprised to learn that I was a woman! I'd always published using my first initials only so they had no idea even though we'd known each other's work for years.

How did you become a geologist?

I began collecting rocks when I was around seven years old. I grew up in southern Kentucky where abundant chert nodules, which have bizarre and interesting shapes, weather out of the limestones. I collected these, then started picking up other kinds of rocks as well. I read books about rocks and my parents were willing to take me on field trips and find space for my rock collection which grew to be quite large. By the time I was in high school, I knew that I would be a geologist. In fact, eventually, I did my master's thesis [a really big research paper] on the chert nodules I'd collected as a child.

Tell a story about problem solving in your job.

I once read about 'exploded fossils' in a paper published in 1908. Exploded fossils were believed to form when minerals grow inside a fossil cavity, forcing the fossil apart. Some really small fossils end up growing as large as boulders.

When I first read this, it sounded kind of absurd to me. I thought, "No way that could happen! What a silly idea!" Then I actually found some exploded fossils. So I had to believe.

By studying thin slices of the these rocks with a microscope I was able to show that these rocks, now made of the mineral quartz, were once, long ago, a different mineral called anhydrite. Now things made more sense. Quartz formation isn't likely to cause expansion, but when anhydrite gets wet, it absorbs water readily, changes to a different mineral called gypsum, and increases in volume by about 30 percent.

For more of the answer, click here.

What advice do you have for students entering high school?

Take a lot of math. Math is incredibly important in science. I wish I'd taken even more math in college than I did, and I had a math minor!

Do your own work in science fairs! Come up with your own ideas. I sometimes judge these fairs and it's clear that parents or teachers sometimes do the work or come up with the ideas. In fact, sometimes it seems that all of the entries are about the same experiment.

If you find a science subject that you love, take college-level courses when you're in high school. You don't have to actually enroll. Just ask professors if you can sit in on lectures. They'll usually be happy to let you if there's room in the lecture hall. You might not get formal credit but you'll learn a lot.

When it comes to choosing a career, find something that gets you excited and don't let anything turn you away from it. A career is something you're going to do for a long time, so go for something you think is fun!
Why Study This?

Please tell more about solving the exploding fossils "problem."

So, the guys way back at the turn of the century had made good observations. They reported what they saw and interpreted it as best they could. But without good microscopic observations, there was no way for them to know about the anhydrite. I learned to treat what I read in old papers with a little more respect.

It's also a good illustration of how science works. I would never have thought to look for these things if I hadn't read this old paper. Other papers on how anhydrite is prone to getting replaced with quartz provided another piece of the puzzle. Once I had collected some samples, I could use microscopic techniques that I had learned from my graduate advisor to actually see the evidence of anhydrite, put all the pieces together, and solve the problem of how fossils get 'exploded.'

How has your job changed over time?

Technology has speeded it up. E-mail makes it easier to work on projects with other geologists all over the world. And with digital cameras and more advanced microscopes, we can see results right away. No more waiting for film to be developed, for example. Small computers have made a tremendous difference in the kinds of calculations I can easily accomplish.

Has anything disappointed you about being a geologist?

I've been disappointed to see how few women stay in the field and reach the top. I've seen many smart, dedicated, creative women leave geology over the years. I don't feel alone because I have a wide circle of female colleagues around the world, but it'd be nice to have more women nearby.

I even did some research on the topic just because I wondered what was happening. I found that in college, there are roughly the same number of male and female science majors and they get about the same grades. By the time they reach the Master's level, there are only 30% women. The number drops to 15% on the PhD level. And there are even fewer at the faculty level. At least that's the case at the university I studied.

How do you cope with parts of your job that you dislike?

Sorry to say, there are still folks around who seem to have a 'problem' with having female colleagues. In other cases there have been certain difficult people who are just very protective of their 'turf' and reluctant to collaborate or even interact in a constructive way. I cope with this by simply avoiding these negative sorts of people and making an effort to build strong bonds with people who are supportive, positive, and eager to collaborate. Happily, I've found many wonderful colleagues who've helped to make my career both productive and a great deal of fun. I'm convinced that the happy, cooperative people produce more science results than the nasty, negative ones--and we have more fun in the process, too!

Is your workload steady or does it fluctuate?

The work is fairly steady, except before a meeting when I need to prepare a poster for display or give a talk.

If "10" is really tense, what's your average stress level at work?

It's usually low. Probably 8-9 before a meeting.

What information do you need to keep up in your field and where do you get it?

I'm still learning on the job! I need to know about geological developments, especially related to my area of study. I talk to colleagues at meetings or online. I'm always researching the literature online (for example at http://georef.cos.com/). I get titles of papers that sound interesting and get them from the UT library. I decide what's important and add it to my own reference database.

I also need to know what new equipment is available, so I read magazines, like American Laboratory or Microscopy and Analysis, that have ads from equipment makers. I learn how to use new equipment on the job, mainly by observing and doing. I'm always looking for new ways to image samples.

Any other advice?

In college, get to know the professors in your field. Get a job with them if possible. They will help guide you professionally. When you get to graduate school, it's really important to publish your research. Don't be shy. If you don't tell about the data, it might as well not have existed. And expect to have to defend your research because others will have questions about it. Some grad students are surprised when they first experience the ferocity with which reviewers will attack their work--but not to worry, this is how science works, it's not personal. It can actually be a fun challenge once you realize it's 'normal.'

What type of space do you work in?

Office and lab.

What's the dress code?


Do you usually work alone or with people?

Usually I'm physically alone but I'm constantly working on projects with colleagues all over the world. Email makes it easy.

What kinds of equipment do you work with?

I spend probably 75% of my time with equipment: computer, microscopes, electron microscopes, 3-D microscope, electron probe (which does chemical analysis) and cameras.

What role does writing play in your work?

All the time, writing grants and reports and so on.

What role does public speaking play in your work?

At professional meetings.

How do interpersonal skills come into play in your work?

I work with others when writing papers so getting along with people is very important. I also have to get along with others in the lab because no one person knows how to run every machine.

What You Need to Know

Title: Geologist
Employer: The University of Texas at Austin
Description: I try to understand the chemical reactions that go on in rocks.
Travel: At least two meetings a year.
Hours/week: 40 at work, another 10-20 at home
Education: Bachelors of Arts in Geology
Ph.D. in Geology
Science: Every day, including geology, biology and paleontology.
Math: I use math to develop statistics about the data I gather. I have to know which formula to use to get the right information.
This career: www.geo.utexas.edu
Kitty's work: not available at this time

Why Study This?