Published: Apr 22, 2016
Meet Jeremy Inglis the U.S. Operations Engineer at Isotopx, a company that specializes in Thermal Ionization Mass Spectrometry. Inglis has explored both professional and academic roles in isotope geochemistry and geochronology for over ten years.
Could you tell me a bit about what you do, what Isotopx does, and what your role in the company is?
Isotopx is a manufacturer of mass spectrometers. We make a particular variety of mass spectrometer that’s able to measure isotopic ratios of a number of different elements used in geochronology (dating rocks) and geochemistry. My role in the company is to oversee the whole of the United States market, overseeing sales, service and technical support.
How did you end up at a company like this?
It was quite a long route through a PhD in the UK and research in the US and constantly working on these really specialized pieces of scientific equipment. Over fifteen years I built up knowledge to the stage where I could fix these scientific instruments, so I was head-hunted to get a job at Isotopx.
I think a lot of us who end up in the sciences or engineering have some sort of story of how we got interested in that. What's yours?
I started off doing geology at the age of thirteen; it just happened to be that the high-school that I attended was one of the few in the UK that had a geology course that you could choose to study as a science requirement. And so at thirteen, I started looking at rocks, and I had a teacher—a really inspiring teacher—who would regularly take us out into the field to teach Geology.
On those field trips Mr. Wilson would enthusiastically describe how each rock or landscape held clues that could be used to understand the story of the development of the planet. I still vividly remember my first field trip to see an unconformity and the questions it raised in my mind. I was hooked from that moment onwards, I loved the outdoors, and so I thought rocks and geology were for me.
From there, I went off to university, got a degree in geology, and was given the opportunity to do a PhD in England. As part of my research, I got to come to the United States and work on an earlier version of the mass spectrometer I now build. I used the mass spectrometer to work out the age of rocks using Uranium-lead Geochronology.
Uranium-lead Geochronology requires very precise measurements, and as I continued to work in the field of geochronology, I started to get more interested in how these machines actually work to produce a highly precise age. For several years I moved between different universities throughout the United States, managing several isotope labs and working on a number of different projects ranging from garnet geochronology to sea-level rise and bone loss in astronauts, always using the same type of mass spectrometer for each of the projects I was involved with.
Throughout the years I accumulated lots of knowledge about working with mass spectrometers until I Ianded my position here at Isotopx. And one of the best things about my position at Isotopx is that I continue to help really great scientists make discoveries about the way our planet has developed and its possible future course. I help folk at universities across the US--helping them fix their machine if it’s broken or help develop new techniques on the mass spectrometer. This is what I love about my job, as it gives me the opportunity to continue to learn not just about the machines I fix, but about the scientific breakthroughs they help produce.
It really struck me how many different fields in geology there are, how they come together and how it's such an interdisciplinary activity. What are your thoughts on this? What's been your experience with this?
I am the perfect example. I started off as a structural geologist. At first glance you might describe a structural geologist as someone who goes into the field and looks at rocks and looks at fault zones and mountains. My PhD research concentrated on large scale tectonics—and orogeny (mountain building) in the earth’s deep past.
A primary question was, “How do you produce mountains, and exactly how long does it take to build a mountain, how long did it take ancient mountain belts like the modern Himalayas to form?” In order to answer this question you need to be able to calculate the speed or rate at which different mountain building processes occur. This IS geochronology! This is exactly how I got into isotope work. As a structural geologist I wanted to calculate the rates of mountain building in Earth’s deep past. The question of the rate at which geological processes occur crops up time and again in Earth sciences, be it climate science or plate tectonics.
I believe the isotope work I do now, or my machine now does, is really the glue that brings many different disciplines of geology together, because it’s geochronology and the age dates that you can produce that provide you with rates of processes. For example, how long does it take for sea level to rise? In order to work that out, you have to have accurate ages on past changes in sea level.
Likewise, if you want to know how often does, say, the super volcano in Yellowstone erupt, you need to know rates on processes of magmatic events, and it’s geochronology that does that. So, you can go to any sub-discipline of geology, be it climate change or paleontology and it comes back to the need for accurate rates on processes, accurate geochronology. That’s what our machine does, it uses isotopes--we measure isotopes with our machine to produce ages that are then used to understand the rates of processes on the planet.
You've gone the academic route and gotten a PhD, but now here you are in industry. For someone who's looking into going into geology, what can they expect on both sides of the spectrum? What are the differences between the academic world and industry?
The best way to answer that is I was in a class of 52 undergraduates at St. Andrews University in Scotland, and of that class roughly five of us went to academia, on to PhDs, and then on to do more research and get faculty positions or something similar.
The majority of people went into either environmental work, looking at environmental problems and issues, or they went into the oil industry. And everybody’s employed, everybody’s making lots of money, especially if they’re in the oil industry.
A geology degree makes you employable, not just for the typical oil job but a wide range of careers. In part this is because a degree in geology teaches you two important skills: how to present an argument to your peers (sometimes on the side of a mountain in the pouring rain), and how to solve problems. And that really is a skill that transcends just geology. You’re learning a vital skill to discuss problems with other people. It’s a skill that you can use in whatever industry that you would go into. That’s the one skill I got from my undergraduate degree that I use practically every day, now that I am in industry.
Moving on to do a PhD was different, it is not for everyone. The hours are long for very little pay, and setbacks in your research can be disheartening, such that it requires an unending passion for your subject. However, the reward that comes with making new scientific discoveries is something that can transcend all the problems you encounter along the way.
What would you say to people who aren't in a university environment or somewhere where they can get access to great mass spectrometers? How do you get into geology? How do you start learning and start experimenting and start exploring right now?
I think that at a very basic level, there are a lot of web resources out there. NASA and the USGS have excellent web resources you can use to learn about geology, and I think the best thing to do is just have an inquisitive mind and come up with some questions about what you think about the planet and how it was created. So let’s say you look at your local environment. What do you see? And can you explain how it was formed. And take that as a starting point to explore what geology around you tells you about your planet.
What would you recommend for students pursuing geology to do if they're shooting for a PhD or a good job? What are the must-dos?
I think that in order to be successful in geology, you have to have a very rounded education. So as we discussed earlier, geology comprises a bunch of different sub-disciplines, and you have to at least touch on each of those sub-disciplines, because it makes you a better geologist. So you can’t just be a structural geologist. Structural geologists still need to know about paleontology. Paleontologists still need to know about isotope geochemistry. And isotope geochemists still need to know about climate change. I believe all the very best geologists I have met are the ones that have been able to embrace the idea that our planet works through the combination of a multitude of processes whose relationships are not always apparent until one pushes for a deeper understanding.
Do you have a favorite rock or a favorite earth process, and why is that?
My favorite rock is an eclogite. And eclogites are a really special type of rock because they’re formed in subduction zones deep, deep--75 kilometers down in the subduction zone. But somehow they get back to the surface.