PhD life: last week’s highlights

This is a new project which I decided to experiment a bit with in this blog. The rule is to take one picture every day of something from my daily activities to show my non-academic friends what the hell I really do at University all the time.

Last week was actually quite busy. I am working on finishing my first paper, hopefully till the end of the year, doing experiments with salt crystals in a high temperature oven, shopping minerals for other set of experiments and on top of all that I got in a  bicycle accident on my way to Uni.

It is actually a funny story how the accident happened because it was caused by a bicycle helmet. There is a law in Australia that every cyclist has to wear a helmet, which I find ridiculous and do not want to comply with.  So I rode without the helmet the whole last year until 2 weeks ago got stopped by a police and almost fined. Since then I started to wear it on the main roads and took it off on quite streets. So on Thursday I was peacefully driving to the Uni with this bloody annoying thing on my head. Then near the campus area I started to take it off. While doing this the only option was to hold the steering wheel with the left hand. The bike was going down the hill. The front wheel started to turn. I lost control. Hit the kerb of the sidewalk. Fall. Then – blood, blackout, ambulance, etc… All of this only because of a helmet : ) Anyway I am fine now. Some pretty deep scratches but nothing that can not heal.  


Middle crust challenge

The conference I mentioned earlier went pretty well. It was a small one, just for PhD students at our department but also a great opportunity to meet some numerical modellers from our centre and hear their perspective on my project.

The field study I work on is about the rock deformation in the Earth’s middle crust. Middle crust is an important rheological layer which has been quite challenging to describe numerically. While we have good approximations on the rock strength in the upper and lower crust, there are no generally accepted models for the middle crust. It is mainly due to the very complicated interaction between mechanical and chemical processes at these depths which results in a fluctuating strength of the rock.

However, I think  it is possible to identify and to a certain degree quantify the processes in middle crust using data from field studies and experiments. The question is if we have numerical tools, powerful enough to model them. And it actually looks quite promising. At this very moment my genious housemate  and colleague (let’s call him Benat)  is working on an advanced numerical code which could allow to solve this. Let’s see see what we can do.

Check out my mindblowing talk:

To do list of a PhD student

- prepare a mindblowing talk for a conference (due in – 2 days);

- make a scientific poster on a project you have no data on (due in 1 day);

- (tomorrow) do some test experiments for the poster to hide the fact that you do not really have data;

- hunt for gem quality perfect crystals (to use for deformation-reaction experiments). This includes calling people in Mexico, stealing from teaching collections and getting in touch with Latvian mafia in Australia (this and next week);

- prepare for an intelligent conversation with a great scientist who is coming to give a talk on a relevant topic by reading 5 of his papers (today);

-  design an experimental apparatus (last week);

- make daily visits to the workshop which is constructing the apparatus until they can not bear the annoyment and finish it faster (following week);

- destroy some of your perfect crystals with the designed apparatus (following week);

- crush some alumina for high temperature-pressure experiments (following week);

- go back to the Stone Age [pun intended] and do hand-polishing of experimental samples, so they get finished sooner (following week);

- do geochemical and textural analysis on the polished samples (in 2 weeks);

- learn how to do chemical mass balance reactions for the paper in writing (following week);

- write a scientific paper (next 2 weeks);

- save the world.

Who needs a life if you have a PhD?

salt experiments

a) design for the experimental apparatus we will use for salt deformation – achieves stresses of 8 bar (idea by S. Piazolo); b) KBr single crystals for the deformation-reaction experiments

A Saturday afternoon

It’s good to have friends who keep a professional rock saw on their balcony. Fills up my weekends when the lab is closed.


A meteorite week

Besides of my PhD studies I currently have a small tutoring load in an intro geology course for undergraduates. Last week it was all about meteorites. We simulated meteorite impacts and demonstrated fragments of different kinds of meteorites. This was the coolest sample in our collection:


Pallasite. Very rare. Very beautiful. And very expensive.

These kinds of meteorites make up only about 1% of all the meteorite finds. They supposedly come from the core-mantle transition zone of outer space bodies. The green crystals are olivine embedded in a metallic iron-nickel matrix.

(+ one more thing on my “to buy list” after becoming rich – a pallasite necklace).

Every cloud has a silver lining

A meeting with my supervisor after the “unfortunate discovery” (see below):

- “Hmm…ehemm…, so, what exactly I am going to do during the New Zealand’s fieldwork?”
– “Shopping!”

An unfortunate discovery

The last 2 weeks were huge ups and downs in my academic life. I made my very first scientific discovery and I lost my main field area.

Recently I spent much time studying the thin sections from New Zealand, from the place where I have an upcoming fieldwork soon. I was especially looking on samples from shear zones (the sites of intense deformation in the Earth’s crust). I looked on the thin sections under a polarized light microscope and tried to understand how the rocks behave when they get deformed and how the presence of water affects their behavior during the deformation. After a while I started to notice some odd things there:

  • Firstly, the minerals in these shear zones got more mixed with increasing deformation. Normally in a highly strained rock I would expect the formation of metamorphic banding defined by layers of softer and harder minerals, as the pockets of soft minerals tend to interconnect during deformation and provide surfaces where most of the slip happens in the rock.
  • Secondly, the grain sizes in the center of shear zone where larger comparing to the less deformed rock on the margin of the shear zone. Normally deformation reduces the grain sizes in a rock.
  • Thirdly, the grains in the centre of the shear zone showed less deformation structures than at margins of the shear zone.

And then, all these new amphibole grains with their strange crystal faces! The shapes, the occurrence, the size seemed just wrong, wrong, wrong! So I took my samples and went to my supervisor for some enlightenment on the matter.

She told me to do a bit of electron microscopy to get a closer look on the microstructures and check the chemistry in the most suspicious samples. A day in a lab (in a very cold lab) and I got results suggesting that my shear zones contain bits of melt. It was an extremely exciting discovery because nobody of the previous workers has recognized a melt in these shear zones before. At this moment I felt super-cool about myself for picking this up. However my joy did not last long. Very soon my supervisors reminded that I am not supposed to study the role of melt in shear zones. I am supposed to study the role of water in shear zones. And easy as that, my field area got discarded. The melt in the shear zones means that the original structures are modified. It means that much evidence is probably erased. Eventually it makes the system so complicated that it is impossible to recognize the fundamental principles of the processes which I am interested in. A huge bummer for me.

After all I got a permission to tag along for the fieldwork in New Zealand anyway but it won’t be a fieldwork for my project.  And the melt discovery most likely will get handed over to somebody else to work with. As Heidi Klum once famously used to repeat: “One day you’re in. And the next day you’re out” (c)ProjectRunway.

Oh, well, I still have 3 years of my PhD to go. And this is just a beginning.

Some melt microstructures:


Electron backscatter image showing melt microstructures (qtz – quartz, bt – biotite, amph – amphibole, plag – plagioclase). Electron microscopes does not use light therefore images are in a grayscale. In these kind of images the heaviest minerals appears to be brighter while the lightest minerals have a darker colour.


A typical mineral assemblage crystallizing from a leucosome (plag + qtz + K-fsp). Small angle of the plagioclase crystal against quartz suggest the crystallization from melt. The electron image is colour-coded by the abundance of K, Si or Al.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.