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Seeking origins of life in rocks

Geochemistry student gets training at nation’s top labs, in running to get experiment time

Contact: Gary H. Piatek

​You could say that Stephan Hlohowskyj is on the road to becoming a rock star.

He is the first Central Michigan University graduate student to ever have been accepted to the prestigious National School on Neutron and X-Ray Scattering at the nation's two top research laboratories: Argonne National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

And he was the only geoscientist there.

The third-year doctoral student in the earth and ecosystem science program in the College of Science and Engineering is using state-of-the-art techniques to explore the origins of life and the first signs of oxygen on Earth by examining trace metals in rocks. 

He was among the 30 percent of applicants nationwide who were accepted to get hands-on training in the research techniques available at the two national labs.

Now that he has completed the summer program, he was invited to apply to run his experiment at Oak Ridge using its neutron technology, which can better pinpoint metals in Earth materials, like sedimentary rocks.

"We at CMU want to do the best science with the coolest tools and the newest techniques, and this would be one of the coolest, newest things we could do," said Anthony Chappaz, Hlohowskyj's faculty mentor. 

In search of molybdenum

Hlohowskyj is examining old rocks specifically for different chemical species of molybdenum, an essential trace element for several enzymes important to animal and plant metabolisms — thus, life.

Geoscientists study molybdenum to see how and when oxygen concentrations in the ocean and atmosphere rose to a level to support life. They theorize this happened in two steps: once during the Great Oxidation Event as early as 2.3 billion years ago and during the Cambrian Explosion, about 500 million years ago, which is when the earliest fossils can be found.

"One of the big questions in geoscience is why did life evolve the way it did and why did it appear on Earth the way it did," Hlohowskyj said. "When did we go from an atmosphere of someplace like Venus with methane and carbon dioxide to an atmosphere with oxygen that is more like Earth today?"

He and other geoscientists believe the answers lie in the molecular makeup of rocks. But the problem is that, currently, scientists mostly study the concentration of metals in rocks, and consequently miss some important information, he said.

"That's where we molecular geochemists come in," he said. "We can use X-ray and neutron techniques to look at these rocks and identify chemicals."

"We at CMU want to do the best science with the coolest tools and the newest techniques." —Anthony Chappaz, faculty member in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

Bring on the neutrons

Like physicists looking for atoms, geoscientists use a neutron source, such as a nuclear reactor, because neutrons will go through almost anything, he said. And if you target certain metals, you can observe them in the rock.

"If we look at the right kinds of rocks from the right times of Earth's history, we can pinpoint these metals, and that's really what all my research is about," he said.

That was his motivation to apply to the summer school — to learn the labs' techniques and then apply to use Oak Ridge's facilities to run his experiments.

Rock-hard optimism

Hlohowskyj and Chappaz believe he has a good shot at being awarded experiment time at Oak Ridge.

"I was there, got hands-on training by their scientists in both labs, conferred with them about my project," Hlohowskyj said. "They were enthusiastic and told me how to write my proposal."

The scientists also are familiar with Chappaz, who has done research at Argonne several times and has published research results from there.

If Hlohowskyj gets chosen, his research will receive a U.S. Department of Energy grant valued at $200,000.

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