LPI Welcomes New Postdoctoral Fellow Swetha Venugopal

June 7, 2022

Recently, LPI welcomed a new postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Swetha Venugopal. Dr. Venugopal will work jointly between LPI and the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division (ARES) at NASA Johnson Space Center. Her research at LPI and JSC centers on the effect of shock on volatile concentrations in meteorite minerals using analog impact experiments, which will allow us to better differentiate the conditions under which these minerals crystallized in the source magma from the chemical overprints incurred as a result of shock.

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

Swetha standing in front of a fumarole on Mount Etna

Swetha exploring the vast fumaroles on Mount Etna in Italy. The yellow patches on the ground are sulfur deposits and the haze in the air is a mix of CO2 and SO2 gas.

LPI: How did you become interested in planetary science?
SV: Growing up, I was fascinated by the stars in the night sky and mimicked the constellations I saw with glow-in-the-dark star stickers on my bedroom ceiling. I remember going to the library with my older sister and spending hours poring over books about planets, asteroids, and distant galaxies. As I got older, I loved reading about Greek and Roman mythology and the connections between the gods and planets. But like most scientists my age, my love for science, and in particular space science, was truly cultivated while watching Bill Nye the Science Guy!

LPI: When did you know that you wanted to pursue this as a career?
SV: I knew I wanted to study Earth and space science since high school. After the first day of the solar system module, I knew that nothing else would capture my interest the same way. I distinctly remember researching what a career in planetary science would look like, and after learning that I could even work at a planetarium, I was convinced! At the same time, I was also learning about volcanoes and the Earth’s interior. I loved both sciences equally and was grateful that I could learn about them both without having to choose (although the choice eventually came!).

Swetha standing with her sister and parents

Swetha with her sister and parents after her PhD thesis defense in Vancouver, BC.

LPI: Did you have a mentor or another person in your life who was influential to your decision or career?
SV: Apart from my family who supported me throughout my studies, my PhD supervisors were the most important role models in my career. Dr. Severine Moune at IPGP and LMV (France) and Dr. Glyn Williams-Jones at SFU (Canada) were instrumental in igniting my passion for volcanology and geochemistry. They taught me how to ask thought-provoking questions and seek innovative answers. I attribute my love for research solely to them and their unconditional guidance throughout my PhD.

Swetha standing with her PhD supervisors in front of a dormant volcano

Swetha with her PhD supervisors Dr. Glyn Williams-Jones (left) and Dr. Severine Moune (right) at the end of a grueling day in the field on Mount Cayley, a dormant volcano in the Garibaldi Volcanic Belt.

LPI: What is the focus of your research?
SV: I am a geochemist specializing in the use of volatiles to assess a magma’s depth, explosivity, and volcanic gas emissions. I have worked on explosive volcanic systems in Western Canada, Nicaragua, the Caribbean, and La Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Studying volatiles in these systems can tell us what caused explosive eruptions in the past, which can better help us mitigate violent eruptions in the future and make informed decisions about evacuation.

At LPI and JSC, I am expanding my specialization and applying my volatile knowledge to extraterrestrial systems. My project addresses the effect of impact events on the volatile content of common meteorite minerals, such as olivine, pyroxene, and apatite. Meteorites give invaluable insight into the chemistry of planets and asteroids. However, the processes that a meteorite undergoes prior to landing on Earth could have a dramatic impact on its chemistry, meaning we could make incorrect conclusions about the meteorite’s origin. Therefore, by studying the chemical and volatile composition of meteorite minerals before and after shock, the results from my project can help scientists better decode a meteorite’s chemistry and its relationship to its origin planet or asteroid.

LPI: What is the most unexpected or exciting result that you’ve encountered in your research?
SV: My PhD was based on melt inclusions, which are small pockets of magma that become trapped within crystals growing from the magma. Once the magma and its crystal cargo erupt, the melt inclusions solidify. By analyzing these inclusions, we can capture a snapshot of a magma that supplies a given volcano, including its composition, temperature, depth, and redox state. Once solidified, a melt inclusion is composed of frozen magma called “glass” and a vapor bubble. In recent years, scientists have discovered that this vapor bubble commonly contains CO2 gas and that this is an important constituent of the magma chemistry. My research took this one step further by questioning whether any solid phases coexisted in the bubble. I used a Raman Spectrometer to perform 3D scans of an array of melt inclusions and their vapor bubbles and found a plethora of solid phases within! This was groundbreaking research as the solid phases contained iron, carbon, and sulfur, all of which contribute to the chemical budget of the magma. My work showed that melt inclusions are optimal proxies for magma at depth only if we consider the solid and gas composition of the vapor bubble.

various scientific graphics from Swetha’s 2020 publication

From Swetha’s publication in 2020: the center image is a typical melt inclusion, with a vapor bubble surrounded by glass (frozen magma). The left image is a 3D scan of the interior of the vapor bubble, and the legend is on the righthand side of the figure. As you can see, CO2 gas (red) is not the only occupant of melt inclusion vapor bubbles! Composed of pyrite (yellow), anhydrite (pink), and carbonates (cyan, blue, and grey), the vapor bubble represents a major component of the melt inclusion chemical budget.

LPI: What would be your dream research trip?

SV: I would love to go to Iceland! It has everything – active volcanoes, and it serves as an analog for martian and lunar landscapes. I would want to see the Langjökull glacier, which is the second biggest glacier in Europe and the testing site for the Curiosity Rover. Finally, I would love to see a volcanic eruption. The low viscosity of magma beneath Icelandic volcanoes makes the eruptions effusive and slow-moving, making it possible to see the formation of classic volcanic landscapes in real-time.

LPI: Do you have a favorite hobby or interest outside of work?
SV: I love photography and seeing the world through a camera lens. Sometimes it’s the lens of my Canon DSLR, and sometimes it’s the viewfinder of my polaroid camera, my most cherished possession and a gift from my friends in France! I am not a professional by any means, but I love capturing moments and memories. My walls are full of photographs I’ve taken with friends, during field trips, or while on vacation. One of my best photographs was taken at dawn at Crater Lake in Oregon. My friends and I camped there for three days waiting to catch a glimpse of the lake, but a snowstorm made it impossible. Finally, on our last day, we woke up at dawn and got to see the lake and Wizard Island! This photo was even featured in a volcano-themed calendar in 2021! As Ansel Adams said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

Swetha's photo of a lake and mountain vista at dawn

A photo taken by Swetha of Crater Lake and Wizard Island at dawn.

Get the solar system in your inbox.

Sign up for LPI's email newsletters