First-year studies Martian minerals

Kate Groschner, a first-year materials science and engineering major, synthesizes magnetic minerals similar to ones found on Mars. (credit: Daniel Tkacik/SciTech Editor) Kate Groschner, a first-year materials science and engineering major, synthesizes magnetic minerals similar to ones found on Mars. (credit: Daniel Tkacik/SciTech Editor)

Ever since she moved to Pittsburgh in kindergarten, first-year materials science and engineering major Kate Groschner has pondered the workings of the world around her. Now, Groschner is pondering the workings of a different world by working in materials science and engineering professor Michael McHenry’s synthesis lab, using magnetic properties of minerals to understand Mars’ planetary history.

As a child, Groschner learned about chemistry by playing with the stereotypical volcano set — mixing baking soda and vinegar to produce a volcano-like eruption. She always seemed to put her own twist on her experiments, like using green food coloring for the lava. “I didn’t want to deal with any of this red lava, or white lava — that’s silly,” she joked. These childhood interests in science led her to focus on math, physics, and chemistry in middle and high school, and eventually led her to study minerals found on the Martian surface as an undergraduate researcher at Carnegie Mellon.

Our planetary neighbor does not currently possess a global magnetic field, but certain minerals on the planet’s crust suggest that it possessed one in the past. “What we do is we synthesize [minerals] that are like the minerals you find on Mars. We don’t have samples of the Martian minerals, but we can synthesize the minerals that are found there,” Groschner explained. “We have very good evidence that these are the minerals that are responsible for crustal magnetization on the surface.”

By replicating these Martian minerals in the lab, the researchers can observe how the minerals behave under certain conditions. Then, when they receive measurements of magnetic properties from actual minerals found on Mars, the researchers may be able to better understand the planet’s formation or why the global magnetic field eventually disappeared. Groschner said that another subgroup in McHenry’s lab is working on creating tiny sensors, which are roughly the size of a dime, to someday collect those measurements from Mars.

“We want to understand why the Martian global magnetic field died,” Groschner said. “We really don’t want that to happen on Earth. We should try to find out what went on over there.”

Groschner finds her research successful in fulfilling her lifelong passion for science. “Science just gets me really excited because you find out the most interesting things about how everything in the universe relates to everything else,” she said. “On some level, everything is connected.”

Conducting undergraduate research is in line with Groschner’s future goals of obtaining a Ph.D. and becoming a research professor. She enjoys teaching and mentoring other students, and those interests are noticeable when she works with classmates in her courses. “For me working with Kate is usually fun,” Yudi Chen, a first-year general CIT major and classmate of Groschner’s, said in an email. “She often offers another side of an argument that I do not see right away. We have different strengths and weaknesses, so when I help, she’s willing to help.”

Groschner’s drive to learn also occurs outside the borders of science — she has been learning how to skateboard, putting a Christmas gift she received last year to use. “I like learning new things,” she said.