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Meenakshi Wadhwa

Education
B.S., M.S., Panjab University
Ph.D., Washington University

Came to Field Museum
1995

Position
Assistant Curator, Meteorites,
Department of Geology

"Science is nothing to be afraid of, but can be
an immense amount of fun." - Meenakshi Wadhwa

SCIENCE HERO:
MEENAKSHI WADHWA
by The Field Museum
Permission to use this material was granted by
The Field Museum.

Career

What do you do at the Museum?

I study a variety of meteorite groups, ranging from those originating on asteroids to those of Martian origin. The goal of my research is to decipher the processes involved in the meteorites' formation using trace element distributions in their minerals and also to determine when they were formed. From this I hope to learn more about how our solar system, and the planets and asteroids within it, were formed. My other responsibilities at the Museum involve helping to define the scientific content of exhibits, and public education and outreach activities.

How did you get started in this field?

I've always been interested in the sciences. I enjoy physics and chemistry and biology, but what particularly interested me about the science of geology is that it is interdisciplinary, in the sense of trying to understand the workings of the Earth and other planets through applying other sciences. I enjoy the field work, too. Being able to travel all over is definitely one of the things that first drew me to geology.

Once I had my master's degree I decided to get a Ph.D. in planetary sciences because I felt I would be limiting myself by just learning about the Earth. There are other planets out there and Earth is one component of the solar system. People tend to view meteorite studies as something independent of Earth studies, but that's really not the case. Most of what we know about the beginnings of the Earth and how old it is and what it's made of comes from studying meteorites.

Where do you find the materials that you study?

Meteorites have been falling to Earth throughout its history, so there are specimens that have been in collections for a long time. The Field Museum has one of the best collections of meteorites.

In the last three years or so, there have been active meteorite collection expeditions to areas like Antarctica and the desert regions of Australia and Africa, places where there's not much vegetation to camouflage a dark rock. Antarctica has been one of the most productive places for collecting meteorites in the last 20 years. There have been over 15,000 meteorites found there by U.S. and other international teams in the last two decades.

Antarctica is special. Not only is it easy to spot meteorites, but there is also a conveyor-belt like mechanism that concentrates meteorites in certain regions on the ice. As thick ice sheets are moving gravitationally toward the coastline, meteorites that have fallen on these ice sheets get carried along until they come up against either a mountain range or some sub-surface obstruction, and the ice starts moving upward. The high-velocity ('katabatic') winds in the Antarctic ablate the surface of this upward moving ice and meteorites reemerge in these zones. You can find hundreds of meteorites concentrated in some of these areas. It's just amazing.

What do you love about what you do?

I love the sense of discovery, of learning something new about our very beginnings.

A lot of people may think that research in the pure sciences, which appears to have no direct applicability, is not as valuable, but I think it is the ability to ask and to attempt to answer these very basic questions that makes us human. Where did we come from? How old is the universe? How old is our solar system? How did the Earth and our solar system form?

We have an amazing amount of information about events that are so distant in the past-something like 4.5 billion years ago-it's incomprehensible to most human beings. But we have a fairly decent idea of how the solar system formed and how the elements formed that comprise you and me and everything else in the whole world. It's knowledge, and I find it very exciting. That's what I find really fascinating about my job.

Another thing I like is the educational component, which is rather different from that in university-type jobs. I participate in educating the general public (not just college-going students, but the entire cross section of society) about what we're doing and why it's important and interesting. Most of our research funding comes from taxpayer dollars, so it's important to show the people walking in the door here that their money is being well spent and that the work is worth doing.

Have you ever experienced any barriers in your career because you're a woman?

I have to say that I have not, Although in India, when I first expressed interest in going into geology, I encountered some skepticism because it was an all-male faculty in the department of geology at Panjab University and 18 of the 20 incoming students in my class were men. The general concern was regarding how I would cope with the strenuous field work and how I would manage in such a male-dominated environment. I think that was the only time that I encountered that skepticism.

I think it's definitely getting better than it used to be. When I go to conferences now, I see a lot more women than when I started out 8 years ago. Maybe 20 years from now, it won't even be an issue.

My Ph.D. advisor at Washington University was a woman. She was a rarity in her generation, and I was lucky to have her as my advisor. She made sure that everything that came out of the lab was the highest quality. She was always rigorous about that. She played a big role in shaping my scientific approach to things.

She had to make some hard choices when she started her career in the '60s. There was no way she could have children and also have a career in this area. Fortunately I don't think I will ever be faced with that choice, but for her it was definitely the case. I don't think she would have been tenured in her department if she'd shown any distraction from her career. That was unfortunate, but things are changing.

Role Models

Did you have any other role models when you were growing up?

I wouldn't say role models, but my parents were always very supportive. Many parents, in India especially, have a different attitude toward their girls and different expectations of them than they do of boys.

My parents encouraged my sister and me to do what we wanted to do. In India that's a big thing. Even in very educated families there is an expectation that once you graduate from college you get married and have kids. Even today that's very prevalent. My parents were not that way and I think that made a difference. Also, many Indian parents would not have let their daughter go off so far away to graduate school.

Do you see yourself as a role model?

I think yes, in some ways, just from being in this position and having the opportunity to interact with people through Museum events like Members' Night and public-outreach talks and seminars. If I can be a positive influence on even a small percentage of the young women that I interact with, if I can boost their self-confidence, make them feel that science is nothing to be afraid of but can be an immense amount of fun, I would feel very gratified indeed.

Goals

What kinds of scientific advances would you like to make?

I'm looking forward to when we have samples, actual rocks from other planets, brought back from spacecraft missions. That's going to happen--from Mars--in the next 10 years. I'm looking forward to holding pieces of other planets in my hand and being able to analyze them so I can tell exactly how old they are, what they're made of and how they formed.

I'm currently involved in establishing a laboratory here, a state-of-the-art geochronology laboratory for age-dating samples. The Field Museum will be at the forefront of such studies, so when we get samples back from other planetary bodies, we're going to be able to analyze them here.

Advice

What advice would you have for a young person interested in science?

Just follow through on your interests and try not to care about peer pressure and things like that that usually distract kids. Try to keep up with the math and science. Math is definitely very important. A lot of kids hate it, but if you honestly apply even a moderate amount of effort, it's not very difficult at all.

I'm a case in point. Through 4th or 5th grade I was awful in math. I was really scared of it and I hated it. My dad, who majored in math in college, said, "Let me sit down and spend some time with you." And we started from the very basic things and worked our way up. All it took was somebody that I wasn't afraid to ask questions for fear of looking stupid and who helped me do it right. That's what took care of it. It wasn't that difficult.

So my advice would be to not worry about looking "geeky" or get distracted by people who think it's uncool in some way. It's not uncool. There are lots of neat things going on, and there are going to be great opportunities in the future, and proficiency in science and math will be key. There will hopefully be manned missions to other planetary bodies in the not-too-distant future; I'm envious of somebody who's in their teens now and may some day have the opportunity of exploring other planets firsthand.


Written by The Field Museum
Permission to use this material was granted by
The Field Museum.

Last changed on: 10/3/2008 4:34:49 PM

The Field Museum is an educational institution concerned with the diversity and relationships in nature and among cultures. Its collections, public learning programs, and research are inseparably linked to serve a diverse public of varied ages, backgrounds and knowledge.

NASA Astromaterials Curation at the Johnson Space Center features information and links about meteorites from Antarctica.

Planetary Studies Foundation promotes the study of planetary science and astronomy with emphasis on meteorites.

JASON Expedition: "Mysteries of Earth and Mars" - Meteor Crater, AZ Read MY HERO's story about the Argonauts' adventure exploring Meteor Crater. The story includes an interview with guest researcher Dr. Pamela Clark who accompanied the Argonauts.

NASA's Mars Exploration Program is designed for students and educators to learn the latest information about planet Mars.

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