As the country celebrates the 50th anniversary of men landing on the moon, a Bristol native is studying the fruits of America’s moon missions.
Dr. Kate Burgess, 36, is a geologist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., studying extremely tiny moon rocks.
“It’s pretty crazy to sit back sometimes and think about the fact that I may just be ‘sitting in front of a computer,’ but the images I am looking at are of things that used to be on the moon,” Burgess said.
Burgess works with grains of soil from the moon that are too small to be seen without a microscope (less than half the width of a human hair). She gets vials from Johnson Space Center that contain tiny bits of moon dust, but each one has thousands more grains than she needs.
“I try my best not to breathe while close to the samples, because I’d just blow the dust away,” she said.
Burgess is now starting a new project comparing six soil samples, two of which have been frozen since they were brought back from the moon 45 years ago by the Apollo 17 crew. Her goal is to explore how the samples are different.
“I am looking at the lunar samples to see how they have been altered by being exposed to the space environment, such as being irradiated by the solar wind or impacted by micrometeorites while on the surface of the moon. We call this alteration process space weathering,” she said.
To do this work, she uses a focused ion beam microscope to prepare individual portions of grains in order to analyze them in a transmission electron microscope, which can be used to get images of the material down to the single-atom scale.
She said a typical day consists of a lot of sitting in front of computers, manipulating microscopes and reading other scientists’ work.
“There are boring moments, and at times it can be frustrating, (but) I really enjoy the work that I do,” she said.
She said she is one of three women in a laboratory staffed by seven scientists, and she encourages young people interested in careers in STEM (science, technology engineering, math) to give it a try.
“There are a lot of quality resources out there, both for finding factual scientific information, but also for finding mentors and women who’ve been there and are willing to talk about their paths and experiences.
“It can be intimidating to reach out, but I don’t know very many scientists who aren’t excited to be asked questions about what they do,” she said.
Burgess is the daughter of Harold and Gail Burgess of Bristol. She graduated from Central High School, got her undergraduate degree from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., and has a master’s degree and doctorate in geological sciences from Brown University in Providence, R.I.
She briefly wanted to be an astronaut, and also considered majoring in psychology, but got hooked on geology in her first year of college.
She said she is thrilled to contribute to humanity’s understanding of outer space.
“It’s exciting to be part of the story of these samples and the Apollo missions,” she said.