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
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!
THE JOB IN BRIEF
|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|
SKILLS AND EDUCATION NEEDED
|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.|
FOR MORE INFORMATION
|Kitty's work:||not available at this time|