LPI Welcomes Ryder Postdoctoral Fellow Evan Bjonnes

June 2, 2022

Evan sitting next to a fossil

Evan visiting a dinosaur footprint outcrop in western Massachusetts.

Recently, LPI welcomed Dr. Evan Bjonnes as the new Graham Ryder Postdoctoral Fellow. Dr. Bjonnes is most interested in understanding planetary evolution and focuses on using observations of impact craters on different planetary surfaces to understand the geologic conditions that were present at the time of impact. While at the LPI, Dr. Bjonnes is working to further understand the impact crater record of the Moon and its implications for how we understand the early history of the solar system. His other research interests include geodesy, the evolution of planetary lithospheres, plate tectonics, and the intersection of impact events and habitability.

Read LPI’s interview with Dr. Bjonnes to learn more.

LPI: How did you become interested in planetary science?

EB: I was always interested in space stuff and geology growing up. My grandparents moved to Florida when I was in elementary school, so we would go to Kennedy Space Center when I would visit, and my grandparents would buy me all sorts of NASA posters and mission gear. I remember being really young and thinking that studying the Moon and other planets had to be the coolest job, and I kept gravitating back to that type of work while I was going through school. I also had a wonderful high school geology teacher, Mrs. Kruczek, who encouraged me to do my best in her class and to remain inspired by geology as I went into college.

LPI: When did you know that you wanted to pursue this as a career?
EB: It has been a long, windy road to where I am now. I first decided to pursue planetary science after I finished my undergraduate degrees, so I immediately went to the University of Minnesota in Duluth (UMD) to study impact craters on Venus for a master’s degree. After that, I wasn’t so sure anymore of what I wanted to do, so I moved to Houston and started working in the oil and gas industry doing geologic interpretation of rock formations in the Gulf of Mexico. That was a great time of my life, but I started missing planetary science. I then decided to go back to graduate school to really see if I could make it work as a career, for a second time. Thankfully, I feel very confident in my choices at this time of my life, and I am excited to see where this path will take me. It is interesting to think about when I was younger, and I wasn’t sure what kind of work I wanted to pursue. I think that’s a valuable lesson, though, because we aren’t always told that it’s possible to change focus or careers as an adult, but it’s really never too late to follow your passion.

Evan standing inside a volcanic crater

Evan inside Stefanos volcanic crater in Nisyros, Greece.

LPI: Did you have a mentor or another person in your life who was influential to your decision or career?
EB: I’ve been lucky to have many mentors who have helped me along the way! The biggest influences have been my graduate advisors, Dr. Brandon Johnson at Purdue University and Dr. Vicki Hansen at UMD. My time working with them has shown me that you can have a fulfilling career in planetary science while also standing up for yourself and advocating for your needs. I wouldn’t have gotten this far without either of them.

LPI: What is the focus of your research?
EB: My research focuses on understanding the geologic history of different planets and moons (including our own) by studying the very large impact craters on their surfaces. I primarily work with numerical models which can simulate the impact process, and then I compare the results of these models with the actual observations of craters from various spacecraft. This methodology works because the different geologic factors like composition, size, and temperature on a planetary body all affect how really big craters form, and I’m able to understand the individual effects of these variables through my modeling. Ultimately, I’m trying to understand what these large craters are telling us about solar system and planetary evolution.

LPI: What is the most unexpected or exciting result that you’ve encountered in your research?
EB: I think the most unexpected result I have found is that Mead Crater, the largest impact structure on Venus, needed relatively cold crust to form the way that it did. Temperature is one of the main variables my impact models consider for the development of these very large impact basins. For this work on Mead Basin, we were able to show that the two main ring faults, which are the most striking features of this basin, could only form if the temperatures in the crust and upper mantle were much cooler than is generally assumed for Venus. This was a very important result for understanding how Venus is evolving and cooling off because the temperatures are usually considered to be much warmer than our results indicated, and we are still trying to reconcile these findings in the broader context of Venus geology.

Evan holding his dog in front of a window

Evan with his dog, Mr. Pibb, working in the lab at Brown University.

LPI: What do you most look forward to as it relates to planetary science over the next 10 years?
EB: I am so excited for the upcoming Venus missions! I got involved in Venus science around 2006 and we haven’t had new Venus data since the 1990s, so the upcoming VERITAS, DAVINCI, and EnVision missions are going to be very exciting. I really can’t wait for them to get going and help us understand what is going on with our sister planet. I personally look forward to some of the big-picture geophysical data Veritas is planning to collect. This will help us refine our understanding of what Venus’ internal structure is and how active the planet is under that thick atmosphere. One of the main questions that we still have in planetary science is why Venus and Earth seem so similar in size and mass yet have developed so wildly different. I am hopeful that the upcoming missions will help us answer that very important, perplexing question.

LPI: What would be your dream research trip?

EB: That’s a very easy question, I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut so my dream research trip would be to go to the Moon!

On Earth, though, I hope to one day go to Antarctica to work with the ANSMET mission to collect fallen meteorites. There is a small team that goes to Antarctica for 6-8 weeks every southern-hemisphere summer to look for small, black rocks on the white glaciers. Meteorites are relatively easy to spot against the very white backdrop of Antarctic ice because they develop a dark fusion crust as the outside melts from the heat of piercing the atmosphere. I hope to be selected for the team in the coming years so I can get the unique experience of living in Antarctica for a few months, and also as a way to contribute to planetary science in a very tangible way by finding samples that could be the keys to some of the next big discoveries!

LPI: Do you have a favorite hobby or interest outside of work?
EB: My main hobby is ceramics. I got started on pottery lessons when I was in high school and I’ve tried to keep up with it, even though it was tough to find the time while I was finishing up school. I am very lucky to have a great studio here in Houston. I try to make it out there a couple of times a week to get out of the computer lab and throw some pots. I also really enjoy traveling and I’m excited to safely visit some new places this summer!

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