LPI Welcomes New Postdoctoral Fellow Nicole Nevill

October 28, 2022

Nicole Nevill with Australian beach in the background

Nicole at the Twelve Apostles in Victoria, Australia.

LPI recently welcomed a new postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Nicole Nevill. Dr. Nevill is a postdoctoral fellow at the Lunar and Planetary Institute and the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) Division of NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC). She has a passion for multi-technical and multidisciplinary approaches to decode the evolutionary history of planetary systems through detailed mineralogical and petrographical characterization of meteorites, interplanetary dust particles, and sample return mission samples. In her current role, she focuses on presolar silicate grains using some of the research capabilities developed throughout her Ph.D., investigating their geochemical compositions and crystallographic and structural relationships at the atomic level. She is also investigating the molecular and isotopic compositions of organic matter in Hayabusa2 samples and studying silicates in interplanetary dust particles.

Nicole in a lab suit looking at a microscope

Nicole preparing samples of matrix regions within multiple meteorites in a clean room to study their organic matter. This was executed during her LPI internship at JSC.

LPI: How did you become interested in planetary science?
NN: I was always curious growing up. I loved learning and trying to decode mysteries in games; and fantasy, Sci-Fi, adventure novels, or real life. I was fascinated with projects on unusual rocks, animals on the farm when I was three years old, and studying ancient cultures in primary school. My favorite book as a young child was Earth and Space, a nonfiction book on paleontology and planetary science. What more challenging, complex mystery and puzzle to solve than the mystery of our universe?

LPI: When did you know that you wanted to pursue this as a career?
NN: Strangely, deep down, I think I always knew this was my path, yet this career really found me. While I loved most topics, such as music and literature, the sciences (specifically biology, physics, chemistry, and math) always had a special place in my heart. After a series of unexpected events and poor health, I veered in the direction of science. I chose geology because it covered all the sciences and had elements of literature and the arts. I planned to use it as a stepping stone to determine which science area I wanted to gear my focus on. One week of class, and I was hooked! After gaining work experience in the industry, I realized I had not found my path and applied everywhere I could find to narrow down which geology field I wanted to study. I enrolled in an extra credit business course with a compulsory work experience component so the Western Australian (WA) Museum’s research facility would let me volunteer in the paleontology research department. While there, I found my passion for research, which was the stepping stone to my current career.

Nicole with a group of women scientists

Nicole with Senator Reynolds and work colleagues. As a 50% female research team, the senator spoke of their individual research paths, the women of the Space Science Technology Centre, and the importance of this growth in diversity for the future at Parliament. Credit: Curtin University.

LPI: Did you have a mentor or another person in your life who was influential to your decision or career?
NN: I have been fortunate to have some amazing mentors and a very supportive family who always encouraged me and indulged my curiosities. Among these mentors, four were particularly instrumental in my discovering this pathway. First, my mum encouraged me to enroll in geology. My industry mentor, Phillipa, gave me the push I needed to trust my passion for chemistry after it had been damaged when a high school teacher recommended that I choose a different career path after some poor health. My supervisor at the WA Museum research facility, Dr. Mikael Siversson, encouraged me to pursue research and showed me that a research career was a realistic goal and not the unattainable dream I had previously thought it to be. Finally, Dr. Phil Bland agreed to take on a passionate student with a lot to learn and encouraged me to find my path and research areas. In my first meeting with Dr. Bland, he spoke about the solar system as this big puzzle with each grain, another piece needed to map its evolution, and “blue skies research,” the kind where there are not enough scientific articles to back you up because it is so new. I was hooked. After diving into the research, I knew it was what I was always supposed to do, and as they say, the rest is history.

LPI: What is the focus of your research?
NN: I focus on understanding the building blocks of our solar system, e.g., presolar grains, organic matter, silicates, salt crystals, and high-temperature materials. I have worked on studying among the oldest and rarest materials in our solar system, developing custom methods using novel techniques to access signatures within these previously unattainable materials. At LPI and JSC, I am building on capabilities developed in my Ph.D. Studying these fundamental building blocks can help us understand physical and chemical processes in our solar system and external solar systems, stellar systems, abiotic organic evolution, and the beginning of planetary formation.

Nicole standing at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro

Nicole at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro after spending five days hiking the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. This was part of a volunteering trip, where she helped build the first childhood education school on Zanzibar Island and taught in four local schools.

LPI: What do you most look forward to as it relates to planetary science over the next 10 years?
NN: One of the amazing opportunities I had starting my career at Curtin University was being a part of and observing the establishment and growth of the Space Science Technology Centre, which is now the largest planetary science community in the southern hemisphere. I have also seen the birth of the Australian Space Agency and the global expansion of the Desert Fireball Network. Planetary science is in a new era as we embark on more complex sample return missions, deep space travel (e.g., the Moon to Mars mission), and enrich our understanding of the cosmos through missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope. In the next 10 years, I look forward to seeing the amazing new heights humanity will reach with research, space travel, and the Southern Hemisphere’s place in this journey. How the space sector will grow in Australia and New Zealand and what influence Australia and New Zealand will have on this ever-growing field as the world takes its next giant leap into deep space and beyond.

LPI: What would be your dream research trip?
NN: While I would love to see many of the phenomena we study up close in outer space, including asteroids and comets, I do not see commercial space travel in the near future. Closer to home, my dream research trip would be hunting for meteorites in Antarctica. Ever since my introduction to this world in my undergrad and hearing stories of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) program, I have wanted to experience it for myself.

LPI: Do you have a favorite hobby or interest outside of work?
NN: I love music (I played violin and trombone most of my life). My other interests are reading, board games, PlayStation gaming, and traveling.

For more information, visit Dr. Nicole Nevill.

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